Public Safety Around Dams

On this page:

Understanding the Risks - All Dams are Potentially Dangerous

Common Safety Hazards

Keeping Yourself Safe

Best Practices for Owners and Professionals

Advocacy and Action

Safety at Dams in the News

Additional Public Safety Resources


 

Understanding the Risks - All Dams are Potentially Dangerous 

Each year, dozens of lives are lost at dams on America's waterways. People are often unaware of the dangers, or they underestimate their risk of falling victim to them. It may be a case of a simple lack of knowledge, reckless behaviors, lack of warning, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Regardless of the cause or intention, outings on waterways can end in tragedy.

Dams are dangerous - even for NHRA drag racer Leah Pritchett. Watch the video below to see why dams are too dangerous to take lightly, even for the biggest thrill-seekers.
 

[Video] Be A Dam Champion
 

Understanding Dams

Larger dams are categorized primarily by the structure of the dam and the material used to build it. More information about these kinds of dams is available on our Dams 101 page here, which breaks down these dams by type and explains how they work. There can be many hazards at these dams caused by water flows, human activities, environmental factors and the structures themselves. 

Many of the most dangerous dams are not the massive concrete structures people often first think of when thinking of dams. Many are low-head dams, also called run-of-the-river dams or "drowning machines". Low-head dams are dams characterized by their low height - usually with a one foot to fifteen foot drop off - that allows water to flow over the top of the dam. Below the surface, the water falling over the dam creates highly aerated, circulating currents that trap people and objects underwater against the face of the dam. These forces are a practically inescapable trap for even the strongest, life jacket clad swimmer or often boats and kayak too.

Low-head dams have a variety of purposes, including hydroelectric power generation, irrigation control, and historically, powering mills. While some dams no longer are needed to serve their original purposes, many others across the United States are still important components of our national water infrastructure.
 

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Images - Examples of Low Head Dams
Images - Examples of Low Head Dams
Images - Examples of Low Head Dams
Images - Examples of Low Head Dams
Images - Examples of Low Head Dams
Images - Examples of Low Head Dams

Understanding Dam Incidents

While all dams are potentially dangerous, low-head dams are especially dangerous because the water around them often appears to be tranquil and inviting. Many drowning victims deliberately jump from or float over them without knowing the risks. Others are caught unaware, as low head dams are notoriously difficult to spot from upstream. The victims of these dams include many would-be rescuers and first responders who lost their lives trying to save others caught in the hydraulic current.

91% of drownings and other dam-related deaths occur in the period from April to August. Many people take advantage of the relatively high waters upstream from a dam to cool off or spend some time having fun with friends and family. Others take advantage of natural habitats near dams to fish.

Swimming, boating, and fishing account for the overwhelming majority of incidents at dams in the United States. According to information collected by Tony Bennett on behalf of the Canadian Dam Association and the International Commission on Large Dams, these activities and related activities account for over 75% of incidents at dams, with fishing alone accounting for over a quarter. 
 

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ICOLD Dam Incidents
ICOLD Dam Incidents
ICOLD Dam Incidents
ICOLD Dam Incidents
ICOLD Dam Incidents

Research, analysis, and graphics courtesy of Tony Bennett of the Canadian Dam Association and International Commission on Large Dams.


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Common Safety Hazards

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Click to learn about 16 Common Safety Hazards including hazards from water flows, human activities, environmental factors, and dam structures.

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Keeping Yourself Safe

It is critically important to not only understand the scope of this danger but also be aware of the many ways you can keep yourself safe and avoid a tragedy.

There are a huge number of things that can go wrong near dams, seemingly small as they are, so it is always best to avoid them. Remember - keep your distance, keep your life.  Always stay a safe distance away from dams both upstream and downstream to avoid drowning, and if you need to go around them, walk or portage over land to a safe distance downstream.

If you choose to go out on a waterway for recreational purposes, make sure you follow these tips:

  1. 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 to avoid being pulled over.
  2. Read the signs: Obey any and all posted signage and barriers in the area, including flood warnings, restricted access signs, portage signs, or other posted signs.
  3. Dress for danger: Wear a personal floatation device (such as a life jacket) if you are boating, fishing, swimming, or otherwise recreating in or around a waterway.
  4. Tell someone your plans: Let someone know, such as a friend or family member, when and to where you are heading out, and let them know when you return so they know you are safe.
  5. If you see someone in trouble, do not enter: Never enter the water yourself to try and help someone. Instead, call 911 and use a remote assistive device, such as a rope or throw bag, to try and pull them back to safety.

For more information on dams in your area, contact your ASDSO state representative

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Best Practices for Dam Owners and Professionals

Are Dam Owners Legally Liable for Incidents, Accidents, and Failures?

According to the Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety published by FEMA in April of 2004, public safety around dams is a top priority for dam owners and regulators. The guidelines read "[p]ublic safety is of paramount importance at all dams and reservoirs. Specifically, public safety on the reservoir, in areas adjacent to the reservoir, and below the dam should be considered, particularly in recreational areas. Safety measures should include identification of high watermarks to indicate past or probable reservoir levels and streamflows, posting of safety instructions at highly visible and key locations, and providing audible safety warnings upstream of and below outlets as appropriate."

Because dam owners bear the responsibility of upkeep, they are also primarily responsible when dams fail and cause environmental, economic, and personal damage. Furthermore, when a non-failure incident (such as a drowning or injury) occurs at a dam, victims and families have increasingly turned to the courts to sue dam owners for negligence. Recent developments in case law and litigation have underscored the need for dam owners, operators, and other professionals to be vigilant and proactive in efforts to secure the safety of the area around their properties. Cases such as Marston v. General Electric (2014), Suchy v. City of Geneva (2014), and Volpe v. City of Lexington (2011) have set precedent for determining liability due to negligence or inactivity regarding the establishment and maintenance of enhanced safety precautions at and around dams. Even in cases that were dismissed or determined in favor of the dam operator, the legal action can be time consuming and expensive. Because of the risks and legal liabilities involved with dam management, it is of absolute importance that owners and operators appropriately address risk and potential hazards at and around their dams.

Risk Management for Dam Owners

Dam owners are liable for failures and incidents at their structures. It is important for owners, engineers, and regulators to work together to manage risks and avoid or eliminate hazards at dam structures. There are a number of ways dam professionals can effectively manage risk at their dams. The guidelines developed by the Interagency Committee on Dam Safety and published by FEMA provide a strong framework within which to develop procedures that can successfully minimize risk. Fundamentally, risk management efforts should focus on the following areas.

  1. Maintenance: Make sure that all structures are inspected at least annually. Vandalism, animal activity, plant growth, and natural erosion all have the capacity to damage or destroy dam structures and signage, creating potential hazards on site.
  2. Installation of Safety Measures: Installing appropriate signage, safety buoys and booms, and portage paths are all important ways to keep recreators and the general public away from hazard zones near dams.
  3. Public Education: Communicate with local first responders, recreation outfits, schools, and other relevant bodies to inform them of the location of dams and other hazards, encourage safe practices on waterways, and to develop standard operating procedures to follow in the event of an incident.
  4. Public Safety Reporting: Record incidents that occur at your dams in order to identify gaps, failures, and flaws in existing safety protocols and procedures. Past reports sourced from news archives or dam safety archives can also provide opportunities for corrections that can minimize unnecessary risks to the public.
  5. Social Media Monitoring: Periodically checking internet sources and social media such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and TripAdvisor (to name a few) for location tagged posts can allow dam owners and regulators to identify how the public uses dam structures and find solutions to effectively prevent misuse and unsafe practices.

ASDSO recommends that dam owners and first responders take the time to evaluate the safety and rescue needs of their area, the efficacy of the various types of rescue products, and determine according to their risk analysis if those products are relevant and useful for them. There are a number of options available for rescue needs. First responders near dams and dam owners themselves may be interested in maintaining shore-based rescue devices, such as throw ring buoys and rope, near low-head dam sites for use in emergency situations. Recently, a company called Creature Craft has developed a low-head dam rescue system called the Waterwog Rescue System that uses an inflatable roll-cage raft to protect first responders from hydraulic currents. These products should be evaluated on a case by case basis.

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Advocacy and Action

As awareness about the dangers of low head dams rises, a number of organizations and individuals have decided to take action in their communities to help improve the safety of dams and ensure the well-being of people around them. These efforts are a crucial part of making sure our waterways and infrastructure are as safe, functional, and fun as they can possibly be. There are a number of ways you can be helpful in this cause.

Education

  • Tell your friends, family, and neighbors about the risks.
  • If you or anyone you know is headed out to a waterway, make sure to be fully prepared. Study a map beforehand to locate potential dams and hazard locations, and always be alert for potentially dangerous situations.
  • Get in touch with local recreation outfits such as kayak and boat rentals, hiking groups, conservation groups, and others to discuss their education programs. These groups are often the best experts in the area for knowing the location of dams and hazards, and can be great resources for making sure people stay safe around dams.
  • Contact your state dam safety agency using the ASDSO state map to find out more about dam safety in your area.
  • If you know the location of a low head dam in your area, or of incidents of drownings, contact your state dam safety agency and ASDSO to report it.
  • Share this webpage along with other awareness materials


National Dam Safety Awareness Day
On May 31st, we join together to commemorate National Dam Safety Awareness Day, remembering the lessons learned from past dam failures, pushing for strong dam safety programs, investing in America's critical infrastructure and rededicating ourselves to the effective public-private partnerships that work to keep America's dams safe, operational and resilient.

The issue of dam safety was not widely recognized until 1889 when the failure of South Fork Dam near Johnstown, Pennsylvania claimed more than 2,200 lives. As we observe the 129th anniversary of this tragedy on May 31, we encourage you to know the benefits of dams, your risk, and your role. Dam safety is a shared responsibility. Learn More

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Safety at Dams in the News

The ASDSO Public Safety Around Dams Committee tracks dam incidents in the United States that are reported in the news. To report an incident email Katelyn Riley at [email protected].

Reports of Incidents in 2019

Reports of Incidents in 2018

Reports of incidents in 2017

Reports of incidents in 2016

Reports of incidents in 2015

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In 1980, Ohio DNR Officials were surprised to learn that in two years nine firefighters and police officers in that state lost their lives in fast-water-rescue attempts. A PSD Diver died during this training exercise (Source: Over, Under, Gone video, Indiana Silver Jackets).

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Additional Public Safety Resources

Links to additional resources including papers, reports, videos, guidelines, and databases are available on our Additional Public Safety Resources page.

Answers to the most common questions about safety around dams are available on our FAQ page. There you can find information about the hydraulic roller, why dams are built, dam maintenance, and simple ways to stay safe around dams.

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Thank You to Bruce Tschantz

Tschantz350.JPG No individual has meant more to the formation of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) and to the development of a national dam safety effort than Dr. Bruce Tschantz. He was a true leader within the dam safety community, sharing his expertise through teaching, writing, committee work, mentoring and initiating industry efforts to raise awareness of safety around dams. The 'public safety around dams' portion of this website is dedicated to him.

In a note to ASDSO, Bruce’s wife, Penny Tschantz, wrote: “In his fifteen years of retirement from teaching, Bruce became increasingly focused on low-head dams, and he worked with many members of ASDSO and other organizations to develop an inventory of these dams and a database of associated accidents and fatalities around the nation. His goal was to educate the public about the dangers inherent in low-head dams and to encourage owners and agencies to take more responsibility. By establishing an informational website, publishing articles, and giving talks, he hoped to decrease and perhaps eventually eliminate the danger.”

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Special thanks to our sustaining members