QUASQUETON – The small town of Quasqueton is planning some big changes for its aging dam on the Wapsipinicon. State officials hope other river-towns take notice, especially, since they say there are nearly 200 other potentially dangerous dams in Iowa.
They're loud and they don't move, and that's part of the charm of having a dam. "We love our dam," said Quasqueton City Council Member Annette Mausser.
At the same time, the Department of Natural Resources says low-head dams like the one in Quasqueton are dangerous. In fact, 17 years ago this week, a pontoon got stuck in the undertow of the dam. Everyone made it out alive.
Nate Hoogeveen with the DNR blames 15 deaths in the last ten years on the current circulating below Iowa dams. Six of those deaths happened in 2007.
"The potential is always that a drowning could happen here," said long-time resident Clayton Ohrt. Ohrt said when he was on the fire department many years ago, he helped pull a boy who had drowned in the river, just upstream of the dam. "Safety should be a main concern here, and people maybe won't be afraid to use the area, if they know its safer to use," said Ohrt.
The early plan is to keep the dam, but dump rocks here to make an arch rock rapids, eliminating the dangerous current. It would also make the shores safer.
Mausser hopes the project would also make the whole area more inviting. Removing dams also help river flow and can help restore populations of fish and other species, according to Hoogeveen. But in many towns, dams are part of their identity, changing one can be controversial.
Often times people think the dams have been there forever. That's not the case. In Quasqueton, the dam was built to help an old mill. And Hoogeveen said in towns that didn't have mills, dams were most likely built in the 30's and the biggest reason was to give people jobs in the down economy.
This project might also spur the economy.
"We would be like a showplace for other towns considering or trying to vote it out or vote it in, they can look at ours," said Mausser.
Quasqueton is trying to find enough grants to cover all of the several hundred thousand dollar bill for the project. The DNR has grants to provide up top 50% of the funding to make the state's 188 low-head dams safer.
Hoogeveen said there are another six low-head dams that have already breached and haven't been repaired. He also said the funding to help make those dams safer dried up with budget cuts this year. But he said that state funding could come in the near future.
Hoogeveen said Quasqueton is an early adopter into the idea of taking care of their dam. Dams near Ames and Cresco are also getting the help, and those project could start this year. Quasqueton is just starting its planning process.