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Low-head dam dangers in Central PA

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Low-head dams have been the cause of several recent drowning deaths in our area.

Water rescue crews want to warn people of the risks that are out there as boaters take to the water over the next few months.

The Department of Environmental Protection says Harrisburg’s Dock Street Dam is the most dangerous low-head dam in Central Pennsylvania, yet people still test the limits.

It’s responsible for 17 deaths over the years, and despite these signs, that number may rise.

“On the surface they look very tame but it’s really what’s happening underneath that you don’t see that’s very dangerous,” says Department of Environmental Protection, Chief Division of Dam Safety, Roger Adams.

Roger Adams says these dams create a strong pull within the waters.

When the water comes over a low-head dam, it turns into what scientists call a hydraulic jump.

It’s similar to the cycle of a washing mashing, and rarely anyone survives.

“If you come over the dam or you get caught up in there – it’s very deep, 20 to 30 feet, plus you have a lot of turbulence, a lot of air, you can’t really swim in the water in that situation,” says Adams.

No matter where you are on the water, whether you’re near a low-head dam or out in the middle of the river, rescue crews say you’re not getting anywhere without a life jacket.

Columbia Borough Fire Chief, Scott Ryno has been rescuing people in the Susquehanna for 20 years.

“This exact part of the river where we’re in – I’ve had people drown in this exact part of the river – so the river is very dangerous, again while it looks calm and peaceful on some days, especially on a day like today, where it’s really moving, the current, the undertow will take you very quick,” says Ryno.

Ryno says it’s people like Joe Portz, and his cousin, who kayak on the water, who need to be careful.

“It doesn’t look too far away from in the water but then you start paddling and you get real tired and your shoulders start to hurt and I can definitely see your shoulders shut down and you can’t go anymore,” says Joe Portz, who kayaks, from Elizabethtown.

1 Comment

  • MyViewpoint

    The phrase, "You can't fix stupid" comes to mind. To my knowledge, there are several signs warning of the dangers. No signs exist on 19th floor balconies that tell you not to lean over the side. Crossing at crosswalks for non-interstate highways like US-30 and US-15 do not have warning signs that say to stay on the sidewalk and wait for the cross signal. Perhaps we need concrete pillars placed upriver in the center of the river with signs.

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