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Experts warn that Kansas River can be especially dangerous near dams

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A man reported to have jumped off the Kansas River bridge was found safe Wednesday morning, but officials and river enthusiasts warn that swimming or boating near the Bowersock Dam can be dangerous or even fatal.

Sarah Hill-Nelson, CEO of the Bowersock Mills and Power Company, said grates or “trash racks” are designed to keep items out of the intake of the plant’s turbine generators, but suction and currents around the dam can cause drowning.

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“People aren’t supposed to be in the river up there,” Hill-Nelson said. “We have safety signs and an egress point. There are racks in front of the plant, but no one should be in the water upstream of any dam.”

According to the Association of Dam Safety Officials website, low-head dams like the one under the Kansas River bridge are “especially dangerous because the water around them often appears to be tranquil and inviting.” More than 90% of drownings and other dam-related deaths in the country occur between April and August.

In April 1987, two men in flat-bottomed fishing boat failed to remove their vessel at the portage point just west of the Lawrence dam and went over the 5-foot drop. The American Whitewater accident database details that one man was able to swim away from the capsized boat and current, but the other did not survive. The boat was later found several miles downstream, and the victim’s body was recovered about a week later.

Hill-Nelson said the plant has posted numerous warnings in and around the river, including “open face dam” signs on the bridge piers and more detailed signage on the riverbanks letting recreational boaters know the hazards of boating near the dam. She said the company planned to add additional signs to the piers stating “no boating beyond this point” to make the warning even clearer.

“Bowersock reminds people that there is absolutely no boating or river access at or beyond the upstream [southbound] bridge,” Hill-Nelson said. She added that boating downstream well past the dam was most safe.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times In this Dec. 12, 2021 file photo, updates were underway at the Bowersock Dam in Lawrence. While water was diverted from these areas, it was clear to see what is underneath the water that normally rushes over the dam. 

River depths and currents can be unpredictable, depending on weather. Hill-Nelson said the combination of dangers near the Bowersock power plant made it particularly risky to be in the water near the dam in Lawrence — especially if jumping from the bridge.

“Jumping off the bridge is highly hazardous,” she said. “It is actually really shallow upstream so they risk death from impact, and then further risk for getting sent over the dam.”

The Kansas River begins east of Junction City at the confluence of the Republican and Smoky Hill Rivers. It flows for more than 170 miles over approximately 115 miles of river valley and empties into the Missouri River in Kansas City, just across the state line from the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport.

According to Friends of the Kaw, the river is a public park open to recreation with 19 access ramps and camping allowed on sandbars and banks below the river’s high-water mark. Anything above the water mark is private property.

Bowersock is one of six dam hazards along the river’s route. There are also two railroad bridges in Topeka that were dropped into the river after they were abandoned.

Friends of the Kaw recommend removing vessels from the river above most hazards in the river, but a few obstacles may be navigable. A detailed list and river access map are available on the Friends website.

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Andrea Albright (she/her), reporter, can be reached at aalbright (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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Experts warn that Kansas River can be especially dangerous near dams

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A man reported to have jumped off the Kansas River bridge was found safe Wednesday morning, but officials and river enthusiasts warn that swimming or boating near the Bowersock Dam can be dangerous or even fatal.

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