Animas River dam redesigned to increase safety

Several people have died from hazard created by dam

Hannah Grover
hgrover@daily-times.com
From left, San Juan student Sean Henkenius, River Reach Foundation board member Rick Page, San Juan College facility manager Jill Ward and San Juan College student Jeffery Downing ride the rapids Wednesday at the Penny Lane Dam in Farmington.
  • Several people have died while floating the Animas River due to the Penny Lane Dam.
  • City officials and the River Reach Foundation redesigned the dam to make it safer for rafters.
  • A high safety wire was also installed to make it safer to rescue people from the river.

FARMINGTON — Since the Penny Lane Dam was built approximately 33 years ago, several people have died while floating the Animas River on the east side of the city.

A collaborative effort between city officials and the River Reach Foundation, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the river corridor, has resulted in a redesign project at the dam to improve safety, infrastructure and the environment. The dam now features a slope instead of a dropoff. The project cost approximately $1.1 million. Work on it began last fall.

Penny Lane Dam was built in 1984 to cause water to pool on the Animas River. The project allowed the city to better divert water to Farmington Lake.

"Our lake is really kind of our life blood," Farmington Public Works Director David Sypher said todaywhile standing beside the newly redesigned dam.

The dam provided a vital service at the diversion of the river, but it also made it dangerous for people floating the river.

The fatalities include Chase Hathenbruck, a 15-year-old Boy Scout, who died while caught in an undertow in June 2005 when his troop was rafting down the Animas River. And in 2011, Flora Vista resident Robert Revere, 32, was floating the river with two friends. All three of them got caught in the current below the dam.

From left, Farmington City Manager Rob Mays, Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts and River Reach Foundation board member Robert Lehmer prepare to ride the rapids Wednesday at the Penny Lane Dam in Farmington.

The water below the dam flows upstream and creates an almost circular wave, according to Farmington Fire Chief Terry Page. Two of the three men were close enough to shore that they were able to get out of the river. Revere, however, did not make it to shore. His friends found his body downstream.

"Many times, the people went over and never really came out on the other side," Page said.

He said the people who got caught in the current were often dead by the time the fire department arrived at the scene, and the rescues were even dangerous for the first responders.

Farmington's Mayor Tommy Roberts and City Manager Rob Mayes rafted over the dam today to demonstrate its safety.

"It was exciting," Mayes said afterward. "I was thinking again how much better (the dam) is than it was."

While the dam itself is safer, a new safety wire has been strung across the river so that rescue teams can tether to it while helping people from the water.

"Hopefully, this cable that has been erected for the fire department will only be used for training," said Rick Page, a board member of the River Reach Foundation.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

The redesigned Penny Lane Dam on the Animas River now features a slope instead of a dropoff.