The Future of Aging Dams Provokes Debate
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
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: 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.
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.
CHUCK ROBERTS: 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: 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.
TOM SCHRADER: 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.
ARLAN JUHL: 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: 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.
ARTHUR PROCHASKA: 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: Cheryl Corley, NPR News.
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