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Outside Magazine - Dams Fall Apart, Kayakers See Opportunities

On Saturday, Iowa’s Maquoketa River washed away Lake Delhi dam, flooding some 50 homes and 20 businesses. It’s not surprising that an 83-year-old dam broke in a flood, but it's a symptom of a bigger problem: America's aging infrastructure.

The average age of America’s 86,000 dams is 51, and the estimated price to repair just the high-hazard dams, or those near homes, is a staggering $16 billion. Don’t expect that investment to be made anytime soon (things like wars and unruly banks are demanding more of Washington’s attention), but until it is, more dams will break.

One solution rightly being championed by enviros-- American Whitewater, Save Our Wild Salmon, American Rivers--is to purge old and unproductive dams from the inventory, like Washington State did when they tore Hemlock Dam down last August. Check out Outside's July issue for coverage and this film for more info.

Removal’s good for endangered fish and restores ecosystems, but it’s expensive, so relatively infrequent. Hemlock, just 26-feet tall, cost a cool $2.7 million to tear down.

Kayakers have come up with another idea: convert old dams into whitewater parks, concrete structures built into a river to create rapids. And it’s gaining traction. Eighty-five new parks popped up in the past ten years and about 25 more are in various stages of construction. Most dams costs between $50,000 and $2.5 million to convert into a park, or roughly half the cost of refurbishing or removing dams. That price point spurred cities well off kayakers' radars, like Flint, Michigan, and Springfield, Iowa, to commit to installing parks.

If the failure of Lake Delhi dam is an indication of what's to come, more whitewater parks could be the best thing for America. In other words, paddling is patriotic. As for kayakers, who knows, the next Eric Jackson might be from Flint. If you’re interested in converting a backyard dam into a whitewater park, get in touch with Gary Lacy’s firm, Recreation Planning and Engineering.

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