Iowa’s Low-Head Dams

Iowa has 174 low-head dams in 57 of the state’s 99 counties. Low-head dams span the river and are less then 20 feet high (many just 2-5 feet high). The dams often are deceptively dangerous drowning machines. Since 1900, at least 190 people have been killed in the deadly recirculating currents that form below these dams — 48 since 1998. The drop below the dam can be nearly invisible from upstream, and the treacherous boil below the dam can appear harmless.

Dams also block the movement of fish and other aquatic life up and down rivers, harm the health and biodiversity of Iowa’s rivers, require costly repairs, and pose major liability concerns.

Since 2008, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has worked to remove or mitigate low-head dams. We wanted to highlight the great work being done so we created the Iowa Low-head Dam Modification Success Stories. The booklet includes stories and details of 13 low-head dam modifications in towns across Iowa — 12 since 2010. Stories include local partners and decision makers, cost of modification, funding sources, design features, and photos. The booklet also discusses the history of low-head dams in Iowa, benefits of dam modification, sources of planning assistance, and a guide for community action. Dam modification success stories included in the booklet are dams at Boone, Charles City, Elkader, Goldfield, Klondike Mill (Lyon Co.), Manchester, North Washington (Chickasaw Co.), Quaker Mill (Delaware Co.), Quasqueton, Rockford, Story City, Vernon Springs (Howard Co.), and Warner’s Ford (Allamakee Co.).

For more information on the history of Iowa dams, please visit Iowa Whitewater Coalition at

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