BYU researchers working to make waterways near small dams more safe

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PROVO, Utah -- Nearly 500 people have drowned at small dams across America since the 1950s, and researchers at Brigham Young University are studying ways to increase safety around these commonplace structures.

Work is underway on a new dam and bridge on the Jordan River at 66th South and 11th West. Five years ago, it was the scene of a tragedy.

Joe and Kelly Glasser of Sandy died when their kayak went off a 5-foot drop and they couldn't get out of the current.

“We seen the two bodies just rotating, just floating underneath the current,” witness Tony Garcia said at the time.

The tragedy prompted BYU researchers to do a study.

"What I found was a lot of the fatalities could've been avoided or prevented with, you know, a little bit of education,” said Frenando Rivera, a research assistant at BYU.

The BYU team created an artificial Jordan River in what is called the fluid mechanics laboratory. They studied how the water recirculates, so water downstream actually goes upstream.

If a swimmer hits a patch like this, or if someone falls out of a boat, they go upstream too. Researchers say the natural tendency is to take a deep breath and try to float, but that can be dangerous.

“If they were to exhale and crawl in the bottom of the river, they're far more likely to get out than if they're trying to take a deep breath and try to float your way out,” Rivera  said.

The flume also helps researchers learn how to make a waterway safer.

“We can introduce water into the flume, we can slope the facility, we can make the water go fast, slow, deep, shallow--and we can do various experiments that show the power and momentum of water and what it can do and what we can do to control it,” said Rollin Hotchkiss, a professor of civil engineering at BYU.

Sometimes the decision is to remove the dam, but another option is to add stair steps on the face of the dam to break up the current.

At the bridge where the Sandy couple died, the solution is simply to fill in a long trench that had developed over several years downstream from the dam.

Unsafe dams are not only a problem in Utah, but also across the nation.

“It’s a very common problem, there's thousands and thousands of these dams, they've been around since colonial times,” Hotchkiss said.

For more information on the dam safety program, click here.

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