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Low-Lying Dams Linked to Drownings Across the Country

Built in the early 1900s, low-lying or submerged dams are concrete walls used across America to harness the power of rivers. These dams helped to keep lakes full to prevent drought, run grain mills, and for electricity generation. Though they are no longer used for these purposes, the dams have not been dismantled. Because the construction of this type of dam creates a wide, smooth waterway, urban planners have been turning these areas into recreational areas. Low-lying dams may appear to create calm bodies of water, but these dams have hurled hundreds of swimmers and boaters into their current and drowned them. Once a person goes over one of these dams, they are stuck – it is impossible to climb out. Lately, the death toll has risen, and creating a debate about whether these dams should be undone.

Recent Statistics

According to Brigham Young University, at least 441 people have died at 235 low-lying dams in 38 states across the country. However, more than one third of the deaths have occurred in 3 states – Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. Other states with a high frequency of deaths from low-lying dams include California, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. Out of those 441 deaths, approximately half have occurred since the year 2000. This is due to an increase in cities repurposing rivers into scenic attractions that draw tourists and businesses to the areas. Many of these rivers, typically used for industrial purposes in the past, are now used for recreational water activities.

When a swimmer or boater approaches one of these dams, all they will see is a gentle drop. They have no reason from the looks of things to suspect they are entering dangerous territory. However, once they drop into the water below, a swimmer gets caught in a current that continuously forces them back to the bottom of the river. If they are able to make it to the surface, they are still unable to escape the pull of the current, likely resulting in drowning.

Experts believe that the number of deaths is greater than the known or confirmed cases. These deaths are not tracked by any government organization. It is estimated that there are 3,000 to 5,000 low-lying dams across the country. On the Des Moines River in Iowa alone, at least 15 people have drowned from getting caught in the current of a low-lying dam. Bruce Tschantz, an expert on low-lying dams, believes the increase in deaths is due to a combination of people spending more time on the rivers for recreational purposes, and not understanding the power of the current. These dams are not marked well, nor are there escapes for swimmers or boaters such as buoys to hold on to.

At the center of the debate on whether to remove the dams are the cost (at least $1 million for removal) and the concern of local residents who are worried about the destruction of the scenic attraction areas, leaving behind a muddy creek. For example, in Geneva, Illinois, 6 people have drowned in the past 10 years at a low-lying dam on the Fox River. However, residents have resisted the dam’s removal, as it will destroy the picturesque backdrop for the city’s downtown area. The state of Iowa has begun financing the removal of these dams, however the expense and hurting recreational tourism is still an issue.

Contact Goldstein & Hayes, P.C.


The Atlanta attorneys at Goldstein & Hayes, P.C. are active members of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and are dedicated to helping prevent the tragedy of drowning by promoting water safety. Many drowning cases should and could have been prevented. Our law firm works to protect the best interests of our clients and provides exceptional, experienced legal representation at every stage of your case. Contact us today for a free consultation.