James River tragedy linked to low-head dams (“drowning machines”)

On Memorial Day weekend, a group of 12 friends were rafting and paddle boarding down the James River, when tragedy struck. Though the group attempted to exit the river before reaching the low-head Bosher Dam, the currents were too strong. Ten were rescued by good Samaritans and a professional rescue crew member. Sadly, two women died in the incident.

low-head dam

What is a low-head dam?

These are low, seemingly benign dams that extend across a moving body of water, controlling the flow as it drops from bank to bank. They are used mainly for generating power and irrigation purposes, although they are mostly obsolete at this time.

Are low-head dams dangerous?

They are incredibly dangerous, and referred to as “drowning machines.” Low-head dams have contributed to hundreds of drowning deaths, and in the United States alone, nearly 150 people have died from 2018-2021.

Low-head dams produce hydraulic forces, and a circulating current beneath the water. If a person were to be caught in a circulating current, they would likely be dragged and flipped continuously in the water, much like the circular motion of clothing inside of a dryer. This makes a rescue nearly impossible, as any rescue boats or vessels would be sucked into the dam’s cycle.

Another reason they are dangerous, is that they appear to be innocuous. The water can look placid with a low drop. Ironically, the drop in a low-head dam is even shorter when water levels are high, which is when the hydraulic action is the most powerful and dangerous.

kayaking in a river

How many low-head dams are there in Virginia?

Across the country, these dangerous dams are supposed to be logged into a database called the National Inventory of Low Head Dams, but many states have not mapped and reported their totals. While the national total remains unclear, there are 59 of these deadly dams in Virginia.

“Virginia has several of these killers on rivers throughout the state,” Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources’ website reads. “Over the years, houseboats, fishing vessels, powerboats, sailboats, PWC, and canoes have all fallen victim to low-head dams.”

search and rescue

What can be done to stop these drownings?

Many states have not provided enough warnings, education or signage regarding the dangers of low-head dams, and the result is catastrophic. The most obvious solution would be to remove low-head dams, as the technology is mostly outdated. In fact, the U.S. has been given a D grade for its dam infrastructure, and research shows that dismantling low-head dams can be a benefit.

Other considerations include:

  • Strong signage along the banks of the river, warning of approaching dam
  • Floating warning buoys, alerting people to the approaching dam
  • At 200 feet (or more) before the dam, place a large red “Exit River Now” sign on the bank
  • In areas where swimmers are no match against the currents, place a “No boating, swimming or wading” sign
  • Have free guidebooks in the park for visitors, warning about the dangers of low-head dams
  • Hydraulic engineers can alter design considerations, based on recent research


What can I do if stuck in a hydraulic dam?

It may be possible to escape the dragging and tumbling that takes place in a hydraulic, and knowing this might save your life. Here are the three steps:

  1. Shed your life vest
  2. Dive to the bottom
  3. Swim downstream

Water safety is imperative year-round, but becomes even more pressing in warm weather, when waterways are packed with people looking to cool off. Always note that the higher the water levels, the stronger the current. Wear a life vest if water is high, or if swimming with young children and those who cannot swim. One can never be too careful about getting swept away by a current.

Losing a loved one in one of these tragic accidents is shocking and heartbreaking. For more than 100 years, the attorneys at Allen & Allen have supported those who have lost family and friends. For a no-cost consultation, call us today at 866-388-1307.

Stay safe.