Environment

Southern Indiana’s Silver Creek is one step closer to recreational activity now that funding has been secured to remove a low-head dam from the waterway.

Silver Creek forms the border between Clark and Floyd counties. Residents of the area have historically had limited access to the Ohio River tributary. But that is set to change with the development of Origin Park, a 600-acre project stretching from New Albany to the Falls of the Ohio in Clarksville.

River Heritage Conservancy (RHC), the non-profit group behind the park, revealed its design in August, including plans to make the park “flood-resilient.” At its core, executive director Scott Martin said Origin Park will be “amphibious,” allowing visitors to kayak on the creek and flooded plains around it when water levels are high.

“Silver Creek is a lot like most of the tributaries in our area, like Floyds Fork, Salt River, Indian Creek and Blue River,” he said. “They have great recreation potential, but the challenge for us on Silver Creek is there is this low-head dam.”

The old Providence Mill dam, or Spring Street dam, is located between the Spring Street and Providence Way bridges that span the creek, about two miles inland from the Ohio River. Before recreation on Silver Creek begins, Martin said the dam needs to go.

Courtesy Of River Heritage Conservancy

Indiana ranks 10th in the country for low-head dam deaths, and around 150 still exist throughout the state’s waterways.

Last week, RHC announced that it would utilize a $75,000 grant from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Lake and River Enhancement Program, in coordination with the Same Shine Foundation, to remove the dam. Permitting and engineering processes are already underway, and the dam will be gone by late summer 2021, Martin said.

Low-head dams were constructed throughout Indiana in years past to support mill operations. In modern times, they have become more obsolete, but around 150 still exist, according to Indiana Conservation Officer Jim Schreck.

The biggest concern is safety, Schreck said.

“Once you’re in a low-head dam, it’s been referred or compared to a washing machine, or kind of a deathtrap, basically, because it has a recirculating effect,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult to remove yourself or even someone else once you’re trapped in that hydraulic.”

Information from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security shows that the state ranks 10th in the country for deaths in low-head dams. More than 10% of Hoosier drownings are related to dams.

Schreck said most low-head dams in Indiana have a drop ranging from five to 15 feet in height. They can also be difficult to identify for people swimming or paddling on waterways.

“If you’re upstream of a low-head dam, they can be almost impossible to see, especially if you’re new to the area or it’s your first time on that waterway,” Schreck said. “If you’re approaching a low-head dam, within seconds you can find yourself swept over top of one.”

Martin said the removal of low-head dams also benefits the local ecosystem. The dams often act as barriers, preventing fish from passing back and forth. Removing the Providence Mill dam will open up nearly five miles of Silver Creek for fish passage.

Martin said that will help create potential habitats for species like smallmouth and redeye bass, channel catfish and American eel. The boost to the local fish population would join the various non-aquatic wildlife in the area.

“It’s the wildest area in our urban core here,” Martin said. “It’s within 30 minutes of 1.2 million people. It’s home to river otter. It’s home to mink. It’s home to the bird life, the osprey, the kingfishers. All of those critters rely on that watershed for their lives. Folks will be able to get down there, and on good days, be able to see a lot of wildlife that you’ll be surprised to see right in the center of a top-50 U.S. metro area.”

The Blackiston Mill dam, another low-head dam on Silver Creek, is just a couple miles north of the Providence Mill dam.

Indiana lawmakers passed House Bill 1099 earlier this year, prohibiting access to low-head dams and the waters around them when warning signs are present. The legislation also required the state to craft a low-head dam removal program.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.