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Dr. Hotchkiss creates a design against the "drowning machine"

1400 people nationwide have died from dam drowning. Dr. Hotchkiss has found a way to make dams safer.

In a world of sharks and spiders, dams may not typically strike fear into the heart. If anything, a cute beaver might come to mind. However, dam drowning is an unexpected tragedy that has claimed the lives of at least 1,400 people nationwide and even more worldwide. In India alone, it’s estimated that six or seven people die daily due to dam drowning. An article by the Courier Journal explains why dams can be so deadly, saying that “as water flows over the dam, it falls into the river below and spins like a washing machine. Anything nearby can get trapped underwater. That unique current is so lethal, it’s been dubbed the drowning machine.”

In 1991, Dr. Rollin Hotchkiss issued an academic challenge to his students to see if they could make low-head dams safer. When no one found a solution, he reissued the challenge the following year but was met the same results. Now almost thirty years later, Dr. Hotchkiss and his fellow academics have created a solution that he cites as one of the most challenging designs that he has worked on in his career.

Dr. Hotchkiss and his fellow academics propose changing the structure of the downstream side of the dam. Instead of the usual flat wall, they designed a structure that resembles a staircase so that the water will flow more gradually over the staircase instead of creating the powerful drowning machine effect. “It eliminates the dangerous currents and protects victims from being severely battered,” Dr. Hotchkiss said. Currently, they are trying to procure the funding to test this safer structure on a real dam.

For more information on this subject, visit this Courier Journal article on dams.