It will be a bitter-sweet event when the Eagle Valley low-head dam is removed in 2018.
Located at the Three Rivers Fishing Area, it has been a recreational resource for generations, drawing anglers from all over Morgan County, and even Indianapolis. It has been to focal point of anglers that enjoy harvesting sport fish, both legally, and illegally. Like most dams, the aging concrete structure prevents migration of many species of fish. This in turn degrades the fisheries for miles upstream.
Plus, even a low head dam concentrates fish. They often stack up in the scour hole as they await an opportunity to work their way upstream. Some fish use the scour hole as a feeding zone as prey are temporarily stunned as they are swept over the dam. This concentration of fish draws anglers. While most use legal methods to fish, some do not.
Locals remember the days when unscrupulous poachers would snag “spoonbill catfish” (paddlefish) as they stacked up below the dam.
Current anglers relay stories of poachers seining the river with lengths of chain-link fencing and similar, taking game fish as well as rough fish.
There is no doubt that the Three Rivers fishing area attracts anglers and party goers by the hundreds. On nice days, before the IDNR built a parking lot, vehicles by the dozens would line the shoulder of State Road 67. Even on less crowded days, one still walks through mine field of beer cans, baby diapers, and discarded bait containers.
All of that may be changing in 2018. Part of the new Eagle Valley power generation plant retrofit plan is to decommission the low lead dam that served the aging coal-fired plant. That means the dam will be taken out and the river will be restored to its natural level and flow. Miles of rocky riffles and runs will be swept clean of sediment, and become vital habitat for mussels, insects, and invertebrates, all of which attract and nourish gamefish species.
While removal of the dam means the elimination of a fishing hotspot, it also means that overall river quality and access will improve. There’s an IDNR launch ramp at Henderson Ford Road, and another at Paragon Road. This means properly equipped anglers can freely access twenty miles of what will once again become a prime smallmouth bass, catfish, and walleye fishery.
While all of this is true, it’s not the entire reason for the removal. The dam is a huge liability, and like other Indiana low-head dams recently in the news, it’s a death trap that has claimed lives.
Low-head dams are deceptive. Few realize the power created by the hydraulics at the base of the dam. The currents have a tendency to tumble the hapless victim back against the dam, over and over, quickly drowning them. Tragically, friends and other anglers try to rescue the victim, never realizing the danger and become victims as well.
Immediately below the dam swimmers or watercraft lose buoyancy, and motor propellers lose thrust in the super-oxygenated water.
The second danger is that the current direction changes at the boil line. Downstream of the boil line, the current is pushing away from the dam. Upstream of the boil line, the surface current is pushing back towards the dam. Time after time, anglers or would-be rescuers, that are pushing their watercraft upstream against the current, suddenly find themselves slammed against the dam. Within a second, the rescuers become victims as they and their boat roll over and over in the hydraulics, trapping them with little chance of rescue or escape.
This very event has happened several times this summer across Indiana and a few years ago at the Eagle Valley Dam, as the IDNR knows too well. ICO LaBonte was called to the low-head dam on the west fork of the White River that serves an IPL power plant just north of Martinsville.
A fisherman had been kayaking and lost his gear when his craft flipped in the turbulent water. Not realizing the danger the man decided to beach his kayak and wade into the river to see what gear he could retrieve. Even though he was wearing a life preserver, the man was pulled down into the powerful boiling undertow.
Bystanders tried in vain to help. Local emergency crews responded quickly, but tragically, the rescue turned into a recovery. All efforts to retrieve the man’s body from the turbulent water failed as night fell.
It was full dark when the IDNR rescue team launched. Using one of the IDNR’s powerful airboats ICO LaBonte, ICO Paul Bykowski, and a local fireman cautiously made their way towards the churning waters of the dam. Lights from the airboat and an IPL utility truck on the bank placed the river in a harsh light and marked the location that the man’s body kept surfacing.
Using lessons passed down from a tragic IDNR training event fifteen years earlier, ICO LaBonte worked the powerful airboat parallel to the face of the dam and finally were able to retrieve the body of the victim.
While this danger will be removed in 2018, many more low-head dams still exist in Indiana, most remnants of old manufacturing plants and gristmills. Tragically, most river users don’t realize the power or danger presented by the short drop of a low-head dam. Nor do they realize how quickly the character of a river changes with just a small rainfall upstream.
In many cases, from upstream a low-head dam is all but invisible. Often warning signs were never installed, or never replaced after flooding, leaving nothing to warn watercraft of the impending drop ahead.
So, while a popular fishing spot will be changing in 2018, we all think it’s changing for the better.
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