Low Head Dams Remain a Danger

Low head dam on Des Moines River. (WHO-HD)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Low head dams are a common threat on Iowa rivers.

Once a boater gets close to the dam, they are pulled in by the strong current. When a boater goes over the dam, they become trapped in the recirculating current.

The current often pulls them under the water rather than washing them further downstream.

Low head dams were created to help with flood control and to hold back water during times of drought. As of 2010, Iowa had 177 low head dams scattered across 57 counties. They’ve contributed to the drowning deaths of 51 people since 1990. The most recent death happened in April in Cedar Falls.

Six years ago Charles City came up with a way to remove the danger and create a new attraction. The city removed the dam and created a series of rapids.

The “whitewater” park now attracts thousands of kayakers every year. It also generates nearly $1 million in economic impact annually.

The Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has a plan to create a similar situation on the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines. The organization was hired by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to come up with a plan to transform 150 miles of waterways in Central Iowa into “water trails” – complete with “launch spots” where residents and tourists alike can enjoy a variety of water recreation. Part of that plan involves mitigating the dams throughout downtown Des Moines.

Two proposals from separate consulting firms are still under consideration. You can view the proposals here.