OREGON – Kiwanis Park in Oregon is lovely. A set of 18 wooden steps leads to a little beach from which you can watch the great Rock River roll by, as it makes its way toward a low-head dam.
It’s a beautiful place to sit on a sunny afternoon, and watch as the pelicans swoop into the water.
The reeds and tree branches along the river bank rustle in the wind. Kids play. People fish.
But downstream from where the river tumbles over the dam, deadly dangers lurk beneath the water.
The dam, owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, was purchased from Commonwealth Edison back in 1956, said Rick Gosch, of the Office of Water Resources at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
“The one at Oregon is dangerous because downstream of the dam, there are a lot – it’s not a very consistent base of the river – there are a lot of deep holes,” he said. “So you can be in knee-deep water and take a step, and then you’re over your head. So if you’re out there in waders or something ...”
Recently retired Oregon Fire Chief Don Heller estimates that more than 10 people – but fewer than 20 – have lost their lives at the dam.
The most recent three deaths occurred in 2006, 2007, and in 2012: Samir Zukanovic, 29, Damian Folwarkow, 15, and Reyes Perez, 37, all of Chicago, all drowned while fishing.
The deaths, Gosch said, while not directly caused by the dam, are definitely associated with it.
“It’s a very good place to fish: downstream of the dam,” Heller said. “If the dam wasn’t there, then the fish wouldn’t congregate there, and then people wouldn’t congregate where it wasn’t safe.”
A recent study conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University shows that since the 1950s, at least 441 people have died at just 235 low-head dams in the United States, just like the one in Oregon. More than one-third of the deaths have occurred in Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Other top states for low-head dam deaths include Illinois, California, Maryland, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.
Experts say the number of deaths is undoubtedly higher than the confirmed cases. No government agency tracks the deaths, and it’s unclear how many low-head dams even exist. Estimates range from 3,000 to 5,000.
The dams were installed by cities to be the workhorses of the river, harnessing their power to run grain mills, generate electricity and keep lakes and ponds filled with water as a hedge against drought. But since then, those underwater walls of concrete have outlasted their original purpose.
A spike in deaths has raised the issue of whether the dams should be removed. But that comes with a cost, as much as a million dollars or more.
The low-head dams are so named for their low profiles, profiles that can also be deceiving to the untrained eye – and potentially deadly.
People upriver from the dam, heading down in a boat or a kayak, would see what appeared to be only a gentle dip in the river, or they might not notice anything at all. Once they’re swept into the dam, it’s almost impossible to get out. People are pounded by a relentless onslaught of roiling water that forces them to the bottom. If they manage to battle their way to the surface, the recirculating current carries them back to the face of the dam, and the nightmare begins again.
Because of that, the IDNR has started installing buoys and signage to warn people of the pending danger.
The dams in Dixon, and both the Sinnissippi dam and the lower Sterling dam, are all low-head dams, as well.
No recent deaths have been reported at those dams, though there have been some near misses.
In March 2012, Jack Daehler, was fishing on the river when his boat motor stalled. Then, the auxiliary motor died, and he was swept over the Upper Dam, plunging beneath the water – an almost certain death sentence given the churning currents the dam creates.
But the river’s sentence against Daehler was commuted, and he rose to the surface and swam toward shore, where rescuers were waiting for him.
Sterling Fire Capt. Gary Dettman told Sauk Valley Media at the time that “in the 30 years I’ve been doing this job, he’s probably the first person that’s gone over the dam and survived.”
The last person who died at the Dixon dam was a child, long before Dixon City Fire Chief Tim Shipman’s time, he said.
“We’ve had some boats go over it, but no recent fatalities,” Shipman said. “The big thing is that once the water goes over that dam the water gets to spinning so bad, and it can just pull people down.
“I always worry that the cable, the buoys, if that breaks, I always hate that when it’s not there because that is the one safety net if a disabled boat makes its way down to the dam. If those buoys are not there when you’re on the water above the dam, it’s very difficult. It kind of blends together. You can’t really tell how close you’re getting without those buoys.”