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New Albany mayor still opposed to removal of low-head dam after teen’s death

Aprile Rickert
New Albany officials are discussing the future of a low-head dam in Silver Creek following the drowning death of a teen in the creek last month.

New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan says he is still opposed to the removal of a low-head dam in Silver Creek, after the recent drowning death of a 14-year-old boy. This week, he instead proposed alternatives to removal that he says will improve safety at the site.

Just over three weeks after a 14-year-old boy drowned near a low-head dam in Silver Creek, New Albany officials are discussing the future of the dam.

Democratic Mayor Jeff Gahan released a statement this week proposing safety improvements to the Providence Mill dam, also known as the Glenmill Park dam, following the death of Andre Edwards Jr.

Edwards was playing at the creek with others on Memorial Day when he went underwater near the six-foot-high dam and never resurfaced. First responders searched the area for hours before calling it off as it got dark outside. Police announced just before 11:30 p.m. that Edwards’ body had been found. The coroner later ruled his death as drowning.

Gahan’s statement Monday, which doesn’t mention Edwards, calls for safety mitigation efforts at the dam, rather than a full removal. The city has made efforts to block removal for the past three years and is currently engaged in a lawsuit on the matter.

River Heritage Conservancy, which oversees the planned 430-acre Origin Park, wants to tear out the dam to make the area safer and for recreational paddling on Silver Creek. A RHC spokesperson previously said if the dam stays, however, it won’t impact other plans for the park.

In 2021, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources granted a permit for RHC to demolish the dam. The state also provided a $75,000 grant.

According to the Indiana DNR, low-head dams can be deadly even to strong swimmers, as water flowing over the top of the dam creates a turbulent, cyclical current below.

Gahan has opposed the removal citing historical, recreational and ecological reasons.

His proposal calls for installing a graded rock ledge for the water to pass over, rather than the straight dropoff of the current dam. Gahan also put the onus on RHC to come to the table and talk about alternatives to a full removal of the dam, which is more than a century old.

“For years, Origin Park has been pursuing destruction of this public infrastructure, and for years, the City of New Albany has been attempting to meet with Origin Park to discuss converting the dam to improve its safety,” Gahan’s statement reads.

Gahan also encouraged RHC and Clark County officials to consider safety improvements to the Blackiston Mill dam further up Silver Creek.

It’s not clear from Gahan’s statement whether the city will pursue the improvements without conversations or buy-in from RHC, but he said he looks forward to working on solutions with the New Albany City Council soon. He also noted that RHC was previously awarded more than $40 million from the state and said the city and RHC should work together to “improve dam safety and enhance recreational opportunities for everyone.”

Council Republicans sponsor resolution in support of removal

On Thursday, the New Albany City Council will consider a nonbinding resolution to encourage removal of the dam.

According to the resolution, brought by Republicans Scott Blair and Stefanie Griffith, the city has spent three years and “an undisclosed amount of money” on matters related to the dam.

It says the city should work with RHC and EcoSystems Connections Institute LLC, a contractor for the conservancy, to remove the dam “as soon as possible.”

“I would hope that the other council members would say, ‘It's time to remove it,’ given the tragic death, and then given the amount of money that we spend and we will continue to have to spend … to keep that dam in place,” Blair told LPM News Monday.

He also said he thinks the removal will improve paddling access in the creek. New Albany opened a paddling launch site just below the dam in 2023.

Blair said he also knows there could be alternative safety improvements “to maintain the existing characteristic of that creek and also make it safer.”

“What the problem is, that’s going to take additional time [and] additional expense. And I don’t see a plan from the administration on what the design would look like, how long it would take and what the costs would be,” he said.

If passed, the resolution has no teeth other than to show where the council stands on the matter. Democrats control the council with a 7-2 majority.

The council will also vote on a $10,000 appropriation for warning and safety signage around the dam, sponsored by three Democratic members.

Family, officials call for dam’s removal

At a city council meeting the day of Edwards’ funeral, his family called for the dam to be removed and blamed the mayor for blocking that for the past three years.

“I feel that Mayor Gahan and the people who backed him in the stopping of the removal of the Silver Creek dam are complicit in the death of my wonderful grandson,” Edwards’ grandfather, Richard Clark, said during public comment. “In the name of my grandson and to stop further loss of life, I demand that the Silver Creek dam be removed.”

New Albany City Council President Adam Dickey read a statement from Gahan at the meeting. It included condolences to the family and a call for Origin Park officials to meet and discuss safety improvements to the dam.

Edwards’ sister, Alissa Malott, also spoke in public comment.

“As far as apologies from the mayor, I don’t care,” she said. “Apologies are nothing when he couldn’t even show up here.”

Edwards’ family started a change.org petition that as of Tuesday had more than 500 signatures.

RHC recently launched the website freesilvercreek.com, which includes information on low-head dams and documents and research related to Silver Creek. It was developed and paid for through a private donation.

It states that the dam “has no historical significance, as claimed by the city,” that the city has no ownership in the dam, and that low-head dams have been proven to be dangerous and are in the process of being removed throughout the United States.

The Floyd County Commissioners put out a joint statement June 4 expressing sympathy to Edwards’ family and support for plans at Origin Park.

“The value of Origin Park to the region is indisputable. The specific threat to safety of the low head dams on Silver Creek and their potential threat to human life can no longer be ignored,” it reads. “It’s time for the City of New Albany to drop its lawsuit and allow removal of this antiquated yet existential threat to our citizens’ safety.”

Long legal battles

In 2021, the city filed a petition for administrative review with the state’s Natural Resources Commission Division of Hearings, challenging the permit to remove the dam.

Last August, an administrative law judge found the permit complies with state statute, which was upheld by a state committee in November.

The city then filed a lawsuit in Floyd County further seeking to block the removal. In the filings, an attorney representing New Albany argued that RHC and ECI want to “remove the dam for their own purposes, without having secured the dam owner’s approval and without properly applying for local permits and licenses pursuant to the city’s ordinances.”

An attorney for the city asked the judge for declaratory judgment including establishing who owns the dam. The attorney also asked the judge for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief.

RHC and ECI also filed a motion to dismiss, which the judge has not yet ruled on.

Coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by Samtec Inc., the Hazel & Walter T. Bales Foundation, and the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County. 

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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