The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced today a new initiative to increase public safety around low head dams which have caused a number of accidents and fatalities on Colorado rivers in recent years. The effort includes new and planned signage around targeted low head dam sites, emergency responder education, public outreach and partnerships with private and non-profit organizations, local municipalities, and landowners and the launch of a new interactive map and webpage on DNR’s website.
“DNR’s low head dam initiative is a positive step to increase public safety and awareness around low head dams across Colorado,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “Colorado has seen an increase in outdoor recreation in recent years, particularly on our rivers and streams, but this has also led to tragic fatalities on some of our low head dam structures. These fatal accidents are avoidable and are a strong motivation for our Department to increase our public outreach and education initiatives. While some of our efforts are already underway, we know we need to do more to educate Coloradans to reduce these unfortunate accidents and ensure all Coloradans can safely recreate in our great outdoors.”
Low head dams are engineered structures built into and across Colorado’s stream and river channels for a variety of purposes, including to divert water from streams for agricultural purposes, protect stream channels from degradation and provide recreational amenities.
Low head dams, sometimes referred to as the quintessential “drowning machines,” can be dangerous because water flowing over dams produces recirculating currents that can trap recreators. Rafters, kayakers and those floating our rivers for recreation are often unaware of these structures and the dangers resulting from them.
Low head dams can be difficult to detect by river users approaching from upstream due to their height, and the fact that the relatively tranquil pool they create provides no indication of the dangers just beyond the visual horizon created by the dam and ponded water. This can limit reaction time and boaters’ ability to exit the river upstream of the dam.
“I appreciate the work being done by the Department of Natural Resources to address public safety at low head dams. Colorado rivers and streams are an enormous amenity for both water enthusiasts and fishermen,” said Ruth Wright, former Colorado legislator, public safety advocate and founder of Wright Family Foundation. “The low head dam initiative will provide valuable information to the public to help to prevent tragic and needless harm from the dangerous hydraulics of low head dams.”
Several high profile incidents in Colorado in recent years, including 4 fatalities, and 13 since 1986 point to the need for increased education and outreach efforts as well as closer coordination with local emergency responders. The average ages of those involved with low head dam-related incidents are between 13 and 30 years of age. DNR and a private ditch company recently installed warning signs at a low head diversion dam on the South Platte River adjacent to the Jean K. Tool State Wildlife Area. This diversion dam between Ft Morgan and Brush is the site of unfortunate drowning fatalities in 2016 and 2019.
“The Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance (DARCA) is proud to work alongside the Department of Natural Resources and the water community at large through this initiative,” remarked Amber Weber, DARCA Executive Director. “Some of DARCA’s members have been touched by the loss of life due to a low head dam structure, and irrigators know the dangers a low head dam has. DARCA is glad to take part in this effort as agriculturalists join with recreationalists to make our waters safe to traverse.”
In response to these incidents, the DNR formed the Colorado Low Head Dam Safety Steering Committee to address safety issues around low head dams. The team of experts included; Colorado Water Conservation Board, Division of Water Resources – Dam Safety Branch, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM), Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation, the Mile High Flood District, and Wright Water Engineers. The Steering Committee oversaw the inventory study of Colorado low head dam sites, which identified and digitized the locations of diversion, grade control, and recreational structures across Colorado.
The Low Head Dam webpage on DNR’s website includes an interactive map produced from the inventory study enabling Coloradans to research and locate potential low head dam structures before embarking on trips down their favorite river or stream. The webpage includes additional resources on low head dams, links to partner organizations, and a feedback form for Coloradans to help identify missed features on Colorado Rivers which could be included on the interactive low head dam map.
“American Whitewater has been pleased to partner with DNR on this low head dam inventory project. Safe enjoyment of our nation’s rivers is central to our mission,” said Hattie Johnson, Southern Rockies Stewardship Director, American Whitewater. “We hope to integrate the data into our web based national whitewater inventory to help river users plan for and avoid these hazards. We are hoping to help crowdsource information to prioritize low head structures and to find solutions to improve their safety.”
DNR’s low head dam outreach initiative is funded in part from a $31,250 Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Water Plan grant, matched with $20,000 from FEMA’s National Dam Safety Program state assistance grant and $15,000 of in-kind services from Wright Water Engineers, and a generous $20,000 donation from the Wright Family Foundation for additional signage. These donations will help future efforts including ongoing public education, increased outreach during spring months, when the Colorado recreation water season is in full swing, installation of warning signage both above and below highly visited low head dam structures, and additional outreach and education for emergency responders.