Across many rivers, low head dams function to raise the water level upstream. However, Professor Rollin Hotchkiss knows these dams' hidden danger, and now the media does too.
Marine Corps veteran Randy Buentello died saving two teens caught in the terrors caused by a low head dam. Soon enough, a San Antonio local documentarian heard about the tragedy and knew he wanted to capture the story on film.
Ray Santisteban had made many documentaries before, such as The First Rainbow Coalition. So, before rushing to start filming, he knew how to respect the family’s mourning time. He waited a year before interviewing anyone.
Unfortunately, once he finally started to piece together the film, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person interactions and slowed the documentarian’s progress. Santisteban continued his work as best he could, watching for the pandemic's end and waiting once again. At one point, he noticed Civil & Construction Engineering Professor Rollin Hotchkiss’ name attached to multiple articles. When social distancing protocols dropped, he set up an interview with him.
Hotchkiss often asked his students “what can we do” about a peculiar issue. Low head dams had deceived many, seeming no threat, and seized numerous lives. The dams trapped people in what's called "the hydraulic"–essentially, a life-size washing machine that keeps its victims endlessly stirring in circles. Hotchkiss pressed his students to find a solution to this problem, while he searched for answers himself. In 2018, Hotchkiss published a journal with his answer. Now, the media has turned to him with their questions.
To gather more information and footage, Santisteban travelled from Texas to Utah and met with Hotchkiss this past October. Hotchkiss shared his insights and explained ways that further human harm can be avoided. “The work Dr. Hotchkiss and his team are doing is extremely important,” Santisteban said. “I’m glad there’s a growing awareness in the engineering community.”
Later that same month, three people from Rafting Magazine, Kailee Hutchison, Nathan Hobbs, and Trevor Croft, came to meet with Hotchkiss. He gave a presentation, shared the meaning behind different terms, and talked about the need for public awareness. Both the magazine and Santisteban plan to share Hotchkiss’ material in their works.
Because he understands these hidden dangers, Hotchkiss wants to share his insights to media sources and anyone else, so that others will start to understand too: beware of low head dams.