Danger lurks near low-head dams

June 27, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer


Low_head dams present danger

They have been called "drowning machines."

Dams create the still waters where many like to boat and fish, but they also can kill.

Two people have died on Washington County dams so far this year. Six people have had near misses.

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Danger occurs with low-head dams, which are built so water flows over the top.

The churning waters below create a strong undertow that can trap people and boats against the dam.

On April 26, Samuel Richard Long of Hagerstown took his 7-year-old son and 14-year-old nephew fishing on Antietam Creek when they ran into trouble.


Their fiberglass boat got sucked in by a dam below Mount Aetna Road and capsized, sending them into the frigid water.

They held on to the boat, which was in the grip of the dam. Rescuers were able to get them out, along with a fisherman who got stuck trying to help them.

Four days later, Justin Michael Fortenberry wasn't as lucky. The 23-year-old Frederick, Md., man was fishing near the same dam when he jumped in to save his dog.

Brent Daubenmire, 19, of Hagerstown, tried unsuccessfully to save his friend. Daubenmire almost didn't make it out of the water himself.

Then on May 20, a Hagerstown man died on Dam No. 5 on the Potomac River.

George W. Yarnell V, 31, of 1547 Violet Drive, had been riding on the back of a jet ski when it capsized.

Yarnell was swept over the 18-foot dam.

Jet ski operator Stephen Wayne Jacobs, 26, of Frederick, survived the plunge.

There are 30 dams in Washington County. Many were built to do jobs such as running grist mills, irrigating farmland or controlling the waters of the C&O Canal.

But today, some of those dams aren't needed for their original purposes.

So why are they still around, especially when they can kill?

"Most of the time it's kept around because the owner has no interest in taking it out," said Brad Iarossi, chief of the Dam Safety Division of the Maryland Department of Environment.

Dismantling a dam can be expensive.

Often, it's simply cheaper to keep up with repairs, he said.

In some cases, the repairs also are costly. The price tag to replace Dam No. 3 on the Potomac River was set at $3 million to $5.5 million in 1987.

The Dam Safety Division can force owners to repair the dams but rarely takes them to court unless there is a great risk to people or property downstream if the dam failed, Iarossi said.

Most of Washington County's dams are owned by the government, which makes it more likely they will be kept in good condition.

A few are privately owned.

Richard J. Nye, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force, bought the 1746 Kemps Mill dam near Williamsport in December.

He's fixing up the former Olde Mill Inn there, which closed in the mid-1980s, but doesn't plan to reopen a tavern there.

Nye would like to restore the historic dam but doesn't know if it's affordable.

He has tried to get government grants but none are available, he said.

Meanwhile, Nye said he enjoys hearing nostalgic stories from people who learned to fish there.

But because of the dangers, signs are posted that people should use the dam and Conococheague Creek at their own risk.

Nye doesn't advertise the fishing spot because he values his privacy and is concerned about liability, he said.

In fact, most dams are kept intact solely for recreation.

Without them, there would be no lakes in Maryland, said Patty Manown Mash, spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources.

From a fisherman's perspective, dams create still waters that are conducive to spawning large-mouth bass, small-mouth bass and walleye, said Ed Enamait, rivers and reservoir manager for the DNR Freshwater Fisheries Division.

They provide a good access point for anglers, he said.

Without the dams, much of the Potomac couldn't be navigated in a speed boat or jet ski.

There are safety mechanisms in place, particularly at the government-owned dams at Dam No. 4 and Dam No. 5.

Warning signs are posted so boaters know they are not allowed near the dams. The DNR also tries to educate people on the hazards of dams, she said.

A new law in Pennsylvania requires owners of low-head dams in the state to put up warning signs.

David Keller lobbied for the law because his son Joe, 14, died in 1994 after saving a friend caught in a low-lead dam along Conewago Creek in York County.

"These man-made dams can at times become killing machines," Gov. Tom Ridge said when he signed the bill into law this month. "Until now, there's been no warning that these dams are hazardous."

A few dams still serve an important purpose.

The Edgemont Reservoir, for example, supplies water to Hagerstown-area residents.

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