WICHITA, Kan. — As more people canoe and kayak on Kansas waterways, concerns about low-head dams are growing.
Kansas has an estimated 100 such dams, but no state regulations for warning signs, The Wichita Eagle (http://bit.ly/2caQVB8 ) reported. So far this year, 22 deaths have been reported at low-head dams nationwide.
The victims include Brian Bergkamp, a 24-year-old seminarian from Garden Plain. He died this summer after trying to help a fellow kayaker who went over one such dam in the Arkansas River in Wichita.
The hydrology behind low-head dams is why experts call them “drowning machines.” As water flows over the top of the dam, it creates a circular current on the downriver side that pulls people and debris down, up and back toward the dam in an unrelenting cycle.
Local officials pushing the river as a recreation destination are now considering ways to add and improve warning signs. Because low-head dams don’t look dangerous, people underestimate the power behind them and go over them — even if they see the dams first.
Bruce Tschantz, who studies low-head dams, said “swimmers just simply cannot overcome” such dams’ strong ridden rotating reverse currents.
An increasing number of deaths at dams in recent years may be attributed to more people kayaking and canoeing, said Tschantz, the former chief of federal dam safety for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and professor emeritus in the University of Tennessee’s civil and environmental engineering department. At least half of drowning deaths at dams are from kayakers and canoeists.
The 21st Street dam, where Bergkamp drowned, is especially dangerous because it’s actually four low-head dams that span across the pillars under the bridge, said Brent Holman with the Wichita Fire Department. He said there are signs nearby but they need to be bigger.
“When it’s going, it’s a churning, nasty machine,” said Holman, who helped in rescue efforts for Bergkamp.
Over the last several years, local officials have encouraged more people to get out on the Arkansas River. In July, the Arkansas was named a designated National Water Trail by the U.S. National Park Service, rating it as one of the best recreational rivers in the nation.
Asked about any immediate plans for new signs at Wichita’s low-head dams, Troy Houtman, director of parks and recreation for the city, said some new signs are planned in the next four to six weeks.
Republican Sen. Dan Kerschen, vice chair of the Senate committee on natural resources, said it’s worth looking into the state requiring signs at dams.
“If there’s some information out there, let’s take a look and have a discussion about that,” Kerschen said.
Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com