The Future of Aging Dams Provokes Debate

There's a debate over what to do about America's aging, and sometimes deadly, dams. Some say tearing them down is the responsible thing to do. Others believe it's better to keep them in place.

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The nation's roughly 80,000 dams provide drinking water, flood control and recreational space, and many of them are aging and hazardous. That's especially true of the small, what's known as low head dams that are common on many rivers. They've developed a reputation as drowning machines. Still, as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, some groups are fighting to keep these dams in place.

CHERYL CORLEY: Nearly every river community has an infamous dam. In Illinois, it's the Yorkville Dam about 60 miles west of Chicago on the Fox River. Three men died at the dam last spring. If there's anyone who can talk about its hazards, it's Greg Freeman(ph). He runs a bait and tackle shop just a few yards downstream.

Inside the store, his squawking parrot sits in a cage surrounded by fishing and boating gear. Freeman was renting out a canoe last spring when he saw a kayaker paddle close to the dam's edge and fall to his death.

Mr. GREG FREEMAN: I knew the guy was going to go over the dam before he did it. He was about 30 or 40 feet above the dam and he was talking on the phone. And then, pretty soon, when he got to about 15 foot or so from the dam, he put away his phone and reached back and was putting on his life jacket.

CORLEY: There are boulders and iron work at the Yorkville Dam now, visible as water rushes over the repair work being done here. At least 17 people have died at the dam since the 1960s. Their names are on white crosses which have been placed in front of a fence at the dam.

Mr. CHUCK ROBERTS (President, Friends of the Fox River): They used to have a sign up here that had three different languages - stay out of the water; it's dangerous - because, as you can see from the crosses here, there were people from many nationalities that suffered the fate of the river.

CORLEY: Chuck Roberts heads the Friends of the Fox River advocacy group. He argues that the Yorkville Dam should have been removed. Low head dams don't look hazardous, but as water flows over the dam's short wall, a rollover at the bottom designed to prevent riverbed erosion curls the water back. The result is a fierce, swirling mass of water called a boil that makes it difficult to escape.

Now crews are replacing the dam's wall with stairs. Later they'll add a bypass for kayaks and canoes. Tom Schrader, with the Fox River group, says it may be safer, but will still be hazardous.

Mr. TOM SCHRADER (Vice President, Friends of the Fox River): The fact is that these dams kill people. They're bad for the river. And Illinois is one of the few states that are rebuilding the low head dams. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, they're taking these dams out.

CORLEY: But for many communities, including Yorkville, it's a matter of both tradition and aesthetics. Yorkville has had a dam since the 1800s, the current version since 1960. Arlan Juhl with the Illinois Water Resources Office says the state did recommend demolishing it.

Mr. ARLAN JUHL (Chief of Planning Section, Illinois Department of Natural Resources): Open flowing rivers are considered to be considerably more healthy than those that are dammed up. But again, when you are in an urban area, you're confronting ecological improvements with the interests of the people.

CORLEY: And many cities and villages use the riverfront as a recreation site.

Standing near a pavilion at the Yorkville riverfront, Mayor Arthur Prochaska said at several public meetings people urged the state to let the dams stay.

Mayor ARTHUR PROCHASKA (Yorkville, Illinois): It is kind of an icon in this area. And if you look out here, I mean one of the things you'll notice is on this side of the river we have our park and everything's very nice. On the other side it's pretty much natural. By having (unintelligible) rushing waters, even in the winter, this water is open and you will see wildlife.

CORLEY: Mayor Prochaska and other residents say not all accidents occur at the dam. There have been others in open areas of the river. And what's important is teaching water safety and making sure there are warning signs and safe passage for canoes and kayaks, changes that are already in the works at the Yorkville Dam.

The state, meanwhile, says it's reviewing all the dams along the Fox River in an effort to prevent other dam-related drownings.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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