The city of Wichita has installed two large warning signs at the 21st Street dam where seminarian Brian Bergkamp drowned in July.
New 4-by-6-foot signs on the bank of the Arkansas River warn people to steer clear of the dam and to exit the water to get around it. The city also has ordered warning buoys, which they hope to place in the water in the next few weeks, said Troy Houtman, parks and recreation director for the city.
Kansas has an estimated 100 low-head dams, but no state regulations for warning signs. Such dams have killed more than 340 people across the country since 1980.
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Dams like the one under the 21st Street bridge are what experts call “drowning machines.”
As water flows over the top of the dam, it creates a circular current on the downriver side that pulls people and debris down, up and back toward the dam in an unrelenting cycle. This circular motion can put hundreds of pounds of pressure on a person in the water, and wearing a personal flotation device doesn’t really help.
In July, Bergkamp drowned at the 21st Street dam as he attempted to help another kayaker. The group of kayakers he was with didn’t see the small, faded yellow signs on the bridge above warning of the dam until it was too late.
Bergkamp’s body was found nearly three weeks later, 6 miles downriver.
In 1979, two kayakers – Andy Abbott and Bradley Berschauer – also died at the 21st Street dam.
Abbott’s brothers said the similarities between Bergkamp’s death and their brother’s death brought back memories. They, along with Berschauer’s mother, urged the city to install larger signs warning of the dam.
The city is looking at several other locations around Wichita with low-head dams that need warning signs, Houtman said.
Along with the signs, there needs to be more education on river safety, he said, and the parks department hopes to work with kayaking and canoeing groups in Wichita to help with that.