From Sanitary to Sinister
8/6/2019
They are called low-head dams because of their minimal profile. More than 300 of them exist in Pennsylvania, and another 2,000 are by definition not low-head dams but mimic their characteristics. On land, these man-made creations are easy to spot. Your vantage point on water is definitely different and includes possible life-threatening consequences, much like that of an infinity pool.

In the days before treatment plants, it was common practice to dump stormwater and sewage into large bodies of water. Low-head dams were built in many cases during the early 1900s to prevent this activity by covering sewer outlets, thus the nickname “sanitary dam.” These structures are also a great way to improve both water quality through aeration and resident safety through flood control. Eventually, someone realized a small reservoir could be created that would enhance recreational opportunities for boaters, kayakers and canoers.

As someone who enjoys spending time on the Susquehanna River, I can appreciate that intention. I also have a healthy respect for the water and the threat to human life it can pose. Such is the case with low-head dams, which are a transition point from one water depth to another. What is created has been tragically nicknamed a “drowning machine.” The danger lies in the combination of water flowing over the dam, the hydraulics that create a condition which prevents anyone caught in the flow from resurfacing, and that same science which pushes anyone on the downstream side of the dam back into the overflowing water.

Following a double fatality at the Shady Nook Dam in Dover Township, then-state Rep. Todd Platts authored what became The Dam Act of 1998, which requires warning signs to be placed on nearby shores. In spite of that, Pennsylvania leads the nation in deaths associated with low-head dams. All told, more than 70 individuals have lost their lives in dam-related boating accidents since 1989. Most of these accidents take place near low-head dams – small, private or municipally-owned structures that span the entire width of a waterway. That is why I have authored legislation that would increase penalties for any entity that fails to adequately mark what are also known as “run-of-the-river” dams. House Bill 1003 passed unanimously out of committee and awaits a full House vote, for which I am actively advocating.

One accident of this nature is too many, and the prevalence in Pennsylvania of fatalities and water rescues associated with low-head dams needs to be addressed. While some of these accidents are the result of risk-taking and lack of good judgement, we can and should do more to make anyone near these dams better aware of the potential dangers and further penalize entities that are responsible for these structures but choose to act irresponsibly.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is responsible for ensuring low-head dams are properly marked both upstream and downstream with signage and buoys, but the dams themselves may be owned and/or operated by municipalities or individuals. Under House Bill 1003, the owners themselves would be cited for failure to mark the dams.

My legislation would make violators subject to criminal, rather than civil, penalties for failing to mark or maintain markings for a low-head dam. House Bill 1003 would also clarify the definition of “run-of-the-river dams.”

I am also researching avenues for examining the need for low-head dams. Some of them are now obsolete, having been originally constructed to support a local mill or factory that is no longer in existence. In these difficult economic times for our municipalities, undertaking a venture such as the deconstructing of a low-head dam is an expensive project. That being said, a dollar figure cannot be placed on a life lost and being No. 1 in “death by dam” is not a proud statistic.

Granted, there will always be risk takers who will gamble even after seeing appropriate signage, and adequately marking these potentially sinister structures will be a costly proposition. But if we are in the business of maintaining the safety of our citizens, it is a price we have to pay and a responsibility we must assume.

Representative Keith Gillespie
47th District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Media Contact: Scott Little
717.260.6137
slittle@pahousegop.com
RepGillespie.com