The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Environmental & Water Resources Institute (EWRI) has determined April 2021 and every April hereafter will be known as Low Head Dam Public Safety Awareness Month. The Boy Scouts of America has shown its support by signing onto the proclamation, according to Andrea Watson, Director of Outdoor Programs and Properties.
Many Scouting units enjoy trips on rivers where there are no rapids — just a pleasant paddle on the water with peace and quiet. Unfortunately, these rivers can also lead to one of the most dangerous hazards that paddlers can meet: low-head dams. Knowing how to recognize and avoid them is critical to your safety in on the water.
Low-head dams can be extremely dangerous whether the drop-off is one foot or fifteen. These dams often span the full width of a river and are especially dangerous because the water around them can appear tranquil and inviting. The river falls evenly over these structures and often creates an extremely dangerous recirculating flow, or hydraulic, at the foot of the dam. These are aptly called “drowning machines” with currents that can form a practically inescapable trap for boats and kayaks. Even the strongest lifejacket clad swimmers can rarely escape. These dams should never be run. When on the river, look well ahead for a horizon line. An abrupt drop in river level below a low-head dam makes the river appear to disappear momentarily beyond the level horizon line across the river.
DamSafety.org suggests a proactive “keep your distance, keep your life” strategy to stay safe and offers these safety tips:
- Know the area: Check maps or speak with locals to get information about hazards on that waterway. If swimming or fishing, always remain a safe distance from the structure to avoid sudden currents. If kayaking, canoeing, or boating, always portage around the structure or turn around well before reaching the dam.
- Read the signs: Obey all posted signage and barriers in the area, including flood warnings, restricted-access signs, portage signs, or other posted signs.
- Dress for danger: Wear a personal flotation device (such as a life jacket) if you are boating, fishing, swimming, or otherwise in or around a waterway. • Tell someone your plans: Let someone — a friend or family member — know when you are leaving and where you are heading. Be sure to also let them know when you return.
- If you see someone in trouble, do not enter: Never enter the water to help someone. Instead, call 911 and use a remote assistive device, such as a rope or throw bag, to try and pull them to safety.
- Safety Afloat: https://www.scouting.org/health-and-safety/gss/gss02/#j
- BSA Aquatics Supervision: https://filestore.scouting.org/filestore/Outdoor%20Program/Aquatics/pdf/Aquatics_34346.pdf
- BSA-ACA Video: Reading the Rhythms of Rivers and Rapids
- ACA Trip Preparation and Planning: https://www.americancanoe.org/page/Trip_Planning
- BSA Safety Incident Review: River Paddling: https://filestore.scouting.org/filestore/pdf/680-056_RiverPaddling.pdf