Rep. Keith Gillespie (R-York) is looking to make many of the waterways across Pennsylvania safer, by making sure there is ample warning of low-head dams. Many of you may not have heard of them. But for those that have heard of them, it’s usually come about because of some tragedy.
“They’re often referred to as ‘drowning machines,’” Gillespie told me in his Capitol office. “Because of the hydraulics and the mechanics of the way these things are constructed, the water flowing over actually gets like a washing machine—a roller coaster, if you will. The water goes round and round.”
As Gillespie points out, it’s almost impossible to escape. The Dock Street dam on the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg has claimed close to 20 victims in recent years. Two of the latest and most talked about victims were 25-year old Mary Bredbenner and her three-year-old daughter Maddy Binkley. They drowned in May of 2018 after their boat capsized near the damn.
“We have over 300 of these across the state,” said Gillespie. “Most of them are not marked. Right now it’s a civil penalty if something were to happen, if you go over and there’s no warning or indication.”
Gillespie has proposed a bill that would make it a criminal offense if an accident happened on a low-head damn that was not adequately marked. So who would be responsible to provide the signage?
“In many cases it is a municipality-owned dam,” said Gillespie, who then talked about the Dock Street dam. He says Harrisburg is responsible for that. “They have done a good job with putting markers across, above and below the dam. Previously they had not been there.”
Gillespie said the dams had a purpose many years ago when the rivers and creeks were dammed up so mills could grind up things like flour and gunpowder. But he says state officials are trying to remove as many of the dams as possible.
“We have to be careful as we do that, because they’ve been a trap for silt and other nasty things that you’ve got to be able to get out because it just doesn’t wash down,” Gillespie said. “They’re also restrictive of the passage of fish.”
I asked Gillespie if there is any possibility of getting rid of the Dock Street dam.
“That’s going to be a very expensive proposition,” Gillespie said, who talked of an alternative solution that’s being tossed around. “In Michigan, they brought a barge in with huge boulders. They put them below the dam and it actually mitigated the hydraulics. They would get rid of that churning effect. Is it cheaper than taking out the dam? I haven’t done a cost analysis, but as others have said ‘what’s the cost of a life?’ There isn’t one.”