ISLE OF WIGHT, Va. — Beaver dam debris clogged the spillway pipe in Stephen Goforth’s ranch pond near Chelsea, Okla., causing 5 feet of water to accumulate over it.
To drain the flood, the 61-year-old rancher had to physically unclog the 2½-foot-diameter pipe. An Oklahoma Highway Patrol report said Goforth was standing in the pond, working with his feet to clear the debris.
“When the water was released, somehow he got sucked into the pipe and drowned,” said Goforth’s uncle, Cecil Rhodes, who farms in Isle of Wight County. “His father was there with him, but he’s in his 80s and couldn’t help.”
Rhodes is a vegetable and row crop farmer and a former Isle of Wight County Farm Bureau board member. Since the May 1 tragedy, his family has been motivated to bring awareness to this safety issue.
While such incidents are infrequent, they have made headlines in recent years. A Kansas man was killed in 2019 when his arm was sucked into a pipe while he was unclogging it. And in 2016, water pressure dragged three Missouri men into a pond overflow pipe they were unclogging, severely injuring two.
“It’s almost unimaginable,” Rhodes said. “If a beaver plugs those pipes, and you have more than 12 inches of water, you’ve got a problem and you have to be extra careful.”
One cubic foot of water weighs 62.4 pounds, and combined with immense hydrodynamic forces in concentrated areas like ponds, unclogging an overflow pipe can create a powerful vortex. Safety experts say landowners should call a professional if a clog can’t be raked or cleared from a safe location.
“In general, the force of water is one of the most amazing on earth,” said Scott Thomas, regional dam safety engineer for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Dam Safety and Floodplain Management.
Thomas encouraged pond owners to contact a qualified professional engineer, licensed to practice in Virginia, to observe and assess the situation and give recommendations for cleaning and removing debris or obstructions.
“Second, you want a qualified contractor who has the proper experience and qualifications in storm pipe and culvert work, and who is knowledgeable with potential work in fast-moving water and/or confined spaces,” Thomas continued. “Sometimes you may need the services of a professional diver to inspect or perform operations which may involve underwater services.”
Summoning professional services to unclog recurring beaver damage can be expensive.
“Sure, it’s unaffordable,” Rhodes said. “But it’s more unaffordable to lose your life doing it yourself.”
Thomas emphasized this type of maintenance activity should never be done alone, especially after a flood event.
“You should only do it if it is very minor raking or pushing debris away using a rake, hoe fork or some other rigid instrument, and you should never, ever enter the water to do so,” Thomas said. “Stay onshore, and do not overextend or reach to clear the debris. If you cannot reach it from a safe location on shore, then don’t do it.”
–Virginia Farm Bureau