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Indiana’s new law on deceivingly dangerous low-head dams

On Behalf of | Jul 10, 2023 | Low Head Dams

When tranquil becomes turbulent, unsuspecting victims may face their untimely death beneath the waters. Per Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), even the most capable rescuer, swimmer, boater, wader or any other recreational user equipped with a floatation device can drown in low-head dams.

Low-head dams, about 150 of them across Indiana, are man-made structures built within the state’s river and stream channels. They appear still and inviting, but their recirculating currents can trap people underwater in lethal hydraulic energy.

Although they have beneficial purposes, such as hydroelectric power, irrigation and water supply, some of the state’s low-head dams no longer serve their purpose and, worse, lead to fatalities.

Dam safety

Indiana’s law targeting these dams, House Bill 1099, was passed in 2020 and aims to address low-head dam dangers with the following provisions:

  • Creates a roster of low-head dams with hazardous currents and tagging them as safety risks
  • Establishes requirements for low-head dam owners, but those owning at least two low-head dams are exempt if the owner:
    • Installed warning signs previously, which were well-coordinated with DNR
    • Provides maintenance and repairs for such existing warning signs
  • Prohibits any person from accessing a low-head dam, unless for maintenance, inspection or removal purposes
  • Indicates that the state is only liable for incidents in state-owned low-head dams

Low-head dam removals continue across the state. The process may possibly take longer than desired due to its costly requirements.

Keep your distance

Low-head dams are not known as “drowning machines” for nothing. Their unique danger lies in their seeming silence, making them difficult to spot. Even with a low height of a one- to 15-foot vertical drop, you can never underestimate the power raging water holds. Ultimately, most victims are rescuers or first responders trying to save people on their recreational trips. If you have fallen victim, seek urgent medical care and legal counsel to determine accountability.