Despite Predictable Deaths at Iowa Dams, Removal in Des Moines Still Years Away

DES MOINES, Iowa -- A light shined down on the heroic effort by Des Moines police and fire to save the lives of a man and woman Monday night caught near the dam at the Scott Street River Bridge.  Nate Hoogeveen serves as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources River Programs director and says the rescue is also shining the spotlight on a glaring issue.  "This latest incident does illustrate that the danger has not gone away," said Hoogeveen.

The two victims became trapped near the low-head dam when their inflatable raft capsized. Both got caught in a current only a low-head dam can create. "These re-circulating currents that form under these dams make it so if you are trapped in there, it`s like upstream is coming at you in both directions," Hoogeveen said.

Hoogeveen says it`s not a matter of if someone will die from a low-head dam, it is when.  Hoogeveen said, "Statewide there`s a little less than two fatalities a year due to low-head dams.  We`ve had two fatalities just this year."

Plans were revealed in 2018 to eventually remove the three low-head dams in Des Moines, transforming the riverfront into a water recreation destination and increase safety.  "If we can mitigate three of those in our most populous area, it`s going to bring our statistics statewide down," said Hoogeveen.

Hubbell Reality donated $1 million to the project in October of 2018, but construction remains four years away.  "There`s definitely more money that needs to be raised than a million dollars.  It`s more to the tune of $100 million plus."

Another major issue the DNR and the city of Des Moines must weigh before removing dangerous low-head dams is disturbing an area with a long history of pouring out of its banks.  Hoogeveen said, "That`s one of the things I`ve advised people in Des Moines.  You can`t have a project that makes flooding worse in downtown Des Moines.  You need to be careful on how you approach that."

As the victims put their terrifying rescue in the past, many hope to soon say the same about low-head dams.  Hoogeveen said, "More accessible, they are safer, friendlier and it helps people connect with our rivers better."

The Iowa DNR says there have been 16 deaths at the low-head dams in Des Moines.

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