Updated April 7, 2008
Almost 32 years ago, the Teton Dam in southeastern Idaho failed
against the force of a 17-mile long, 270-foot deep reservoir. Eight
months of stored stream flow and snowmelt crashed down the valley
in less than six hours, swallowing the communities of Rexburg,
Teton, Newdale and Sugar City. Eleven people died and the wall of
water caused as much as $1 billion in damage, according to local
Now, the dam may be resurrected.
month, the Idaho Department of Water Resources set aside $400,000
to study the feasibility of rebuilding the dam across the Teton
River Canyon. The resulting reservoir would provide agricultural
and drinking water as well as hydropower and recreation, says Dave
Tuthill, director of the state’s Department of Water
“Fifty years ago we had enough
water,” says Tuthill. “But we have been experiencing
many years of drought in Idaho, so we have a heightened awareness
for a need for additional water supplies.” Increased
urbanization and the likelihood of a hotter, drier future have also
made Idaho thirstier.
The state’s study will
investigate whether a new dam can be built safely in the porous
rock that contributed to the first dam’s collapse, as well as
whether or not another reservoir is the best remedy for
Idaho’s dry times. The state will also consider recharging
aquifers and diverting water to storage areas, such as nearby
Before the dam was completed in 1976, conservation
groups including Trout Unlimited and the Sierra Club filed a
lawsuit to halt the project. Today, eco-groups criticize the idea
of rebuilding the dam, saying it would disrupt seasonal flows
critical to the spawning cycles of native Yellowstone cutthroat
trout. The cutthroat prefer flowing water to lakes or reservoirs.
In addition to harming trout and aquatic species, the
reservoir would drown bald eagle nesting grounds and block deer and
elk from their wintering areas in the Teton Canyon, says Kim
Goodman, project director with Trout Unlimited.
studying the revival of the Teton Dam is a misuse of money, Goodman
says. “We’re spending state and federal funds to find
out if (the dam) is feasible or not. But we already proved this dam
is not feasible. Its failure was the ultimate sign.”
Instead, say conservationists, the state could work with
irrigators to conserve Teton water, create an incentive-based water
trading system, and increase the capacity of existing dams like the
Minidoka on the Snake River.
Of the more than 600 dams
the Bureau of Reclamation has built during the past century, the
Teton Dam has been the only dam to fail.
“It had a
very profound effect not just on Reclamation but on the whole
Department of Interior,” says Diana Cross, acting deputy
regional director with the Bureau. “After that, the dam
safety program was created. We now have a safety record second to
Nonetheless, after the 1976 incident,
rebuilding the dam might be a hard sell.
other day, I was visiting a friend in the area,” says
Goodman. “I said, ‘(The flood) seems so fresh in
‘Yeah,’ he said,
holding back tears. ‘I was one of the people in the
helicopter rescuing people in Sugar City and Rexburg when the flood
hit.’ Can you imagine if it had happened at night? It is
amazing that only 11 people died in that disaster.”
The author is an intern for High Country News.
For more information about the 1976 flood, see these