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Town considering options for warning about dangers

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People who fish or swim near the dam in Edinburgh won’t see any signs about the danger the dam poses, but both the town and state would like to add warnings after two teens died this summer.

In a typical summer, residents would swim downstream of the dam or wade out to sandbars and fish. But the accident is fresh in people’s minds, said Nancy Jessie, who works at a bait shop nearby. Jessie hasn’t seen a single person swimming in the river since the drowning and said fewer people are fishing.

At least one person stops by every day to chat about the accident, look at the memorials, or sit quietly and watch the dam for a few minutes, she said.

“No one swims down there. Very few people fish, but they do go down, and they’ll wade across, and they’ll fish from the other side,” Jessie said. “If that (the accident) didn’t happen, there would be people down there swimming.”

Now the town wants to make sure people are better informed about the danger of the dam and river before getting into the water in the future.

Since the Big Blue River is a public waterway, neither conservation officers nor local police can bar people from using the river for swimming, boating or fishing, Department of Natural Resources officer Jet Quillen said. But signs could be put up, warning people about faster currents when the water level is high or powerful underwater suction near the dam wall.

Five teenagers were swimming in the river June 6 when a girl fell over the dam wall and was pulled into the strong, spiraling water nearby. Her four friends followed, trying to help. One of those teens was trapped underwater and drowned. Another teen died at the hospital after being taken off life support following the incident. The teen girl who went over the dam first remains at an Indianapolis hospital after being pulled from the water.

The river was at flood stage the day of the accident, meaning the water level was higher than normal and was creating faster-moving currents. The higher water also created a wider area where the water coming over the dam viciously circles, pulling objects toward the dam where the water spilling over pushes them under the surface.

A person might not know about the dangerous circling water or understand that currents may be stronger when the water level is up. The Big Blue River typically tops the 9-foot mark, a pre-flood level, just a few times per year. The water level has risen past that point five times so far this year, five times in 2013 and four times in 2012, according to historical readings from the United States Geological Survey. On June 5, the day before the accident, the Big Blue River crested at about 9.5 feet and dropped to around 7 feet by the next day.

No signs warn people of the potential danger, but Edinburgh Town Council president Ron Hoffman said the town is planning to put at least one warning sign up. Quillen and Hoffman agreed that warning signs should be installed and will look into who has authority to put up the signs.

“We do encourage people to go out and enjoy the outdoors and utilize the natural resources in a safe way,” Quillen said. “Potentially there should be something up there to advise the public of the danger of the dam.”

The dam creates a dangerous hydraulic spiral, which is wider and fiercer when the water level is higher.

Higher water makes the dam more dangerous because the extra water spilling over the dam creates more force pushing objects down at the dam wall, Quillen said. That also extends the length of the boil line, or area where the water pulls back toward the wall. That can also present additional danger to someone not familiar with the river or the dam, he said.

“We’ve seen too many incidents especially this spring with the high water levels and fast-moving water levels and how that’s dangerous to the public. It potentially could be deadly as we’ve seen in the incident,” Quillen said.

The state only controls the river itself from bank to bank, with no additional property outside the edges of the water level, so the Department of Natural Resources can’t put a sign up along the bank, Quillen said.

Edinburgh owns the dam itself and has a town ordinance that anyone walking on it could be fined, Hoffman said. The properties close to the dam, including a bait shop, homes and an apartment complex are private property, but the town is looking into getting the permission from local property owners to put up new signs.

Edinburgh also will seek approval from the state after they were told before they couldn’t put up warnings. When the town discovered damage to the dam last year, town officials put up a sign near the public access site at Irwin Park north of the dam but was told by the Department of Natural Resources to take it down, Hoffman said.

“If they would put something in writing to the town that it would be OK for us to put it up, we would do so,” Hoffman said.

Although residents are avoiding the river, they haven’t asked for warning signs or made any requests to have the town consider removing the dam, Hoffman said. The dam was built to power a nearby grist mill that no longer exists, and the state has determined removing it wouldn’t cause damage or additional flooding to properties downstream.

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