Teton Valley News Article
(Created: Thursday, April 3, 2008 9:50 AM MDT)
More than 30 years after a colossal failure, some want Teton River dam replaced
By Jeannette Boner
Special to the TVN
It’s an idea that has been on the books since that fateful day 32 years ago this June.
Only this year, the prospect of rebuilding the Teton Dam took a larger step forward as the state of Idaho set aside $400,000 in a $1.8 million water budget to study resurrecting the structure in the Teton River Canyon in Fremont County.
Also included in the water budget is money to study improvements on the Minidoka Dam with the plan of raising the structure another five feet for greater water storage. But it is the Teton Dam that comes with considerable baggage since its failure June 5, 1976, caused $300 million worth of damage, wiped out towns, eliminated entire herds of livestock and killed 11 people.
“That’s a joke,” said third-generation Teton Valley fly fishing guide Randy Berry of the prospect of resurrecting the dam. “I said that 20 years ago and I’ll say it again today. That’s nothing but greed and politics at work.”
The final report presented to Idaho government officials in February as the Upper Snake River Management Plan included the need to raise the Minidoka Dam, but did not include in its final assessment rebuilding the Teton Dam.
“These last few years have been tough,” said Hal Anderson, division administrator with the Idaho Department of Water Resources in Boise. “We’ve had some bad water years and Idaho is fairly under-stored and that is compounded with increasing demands.”
It was in 2007 that the Idaho Department of Water Resources identified 73 potential water storage sites in the Upper Snake River Basin, but listed the Minidoka Dam enlargement and the Teton Dam reconstruction as the two “potential large scale storage projects that warrant consideration.”
Breaking down the numbers
IDWR estimates a new Teton Dam could account for more than 300,000 acre feet of storage and provide power and flood control benefits that would come with an estimated price tag of $435 million to construct. The dam would be a concrete structure as opposedto the original earthen dam that was built in the early and mid-70s.
The Minidoka Dam upgrades are estimated at $100 million and would increase the reservoir’s storage up to 50,000 acre feet.
For many conservation groups, the cost of the dam is nothing compared to the amenities the canyon provides in terms of recreation, wildlife habitats and aesthetics.
For Berry, who sued the state in 1975 along with other conservation groups to stop the dam’s construction, the thought of placing another dam in that same area would, “completely take away the most beautiful of areas and we can’t afford to destroy those places. We need to protect them any way we know how.”
Three months after the 1976 flood, Congressman Leo J. Ryan, of California, called the Teton Dam’s break “one of the most colossal and dramatic failures in our national history.” According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the 270-foot-deep reservoir that took almost eight months to fill drained in less than six hours, impacting the physical attributes of the canyon as well as the biology of 17 miles of the Teton River Canyon and surrounding tributaries, including the Henry’s Fork.
The scapegoat for the dam’s failure was the Bureau of Reclamation, which designed the structure. In an independent council’s investigation, two geologists, one from Montana and the other from the University of Idaho, testified that the location for the dam was “inadequate” and the bureau did not have enough detailed information while constructing the dam in the Teton River Canyon to ensure it would hold. At issue was the fissured canyon walls through which water seeped.
Contemporary information includes a 2002 study completed by Idaho Fish and Game that found “trout fishery in the Teton Canyon has declined in the 25 years following the Teton Dam collapse, despite the shift to wild, native trout management, special protective regulations, and catch-and-release fly fishing.”
Locals weigh in
The fish, along with the geology of the dam site, are a concern for local waterway nonprofit Friends of the Teton River. FTR’s Executive Director Lyn Benjamin said her organization is apprehensive about the geology of the dam, the biology of the Teton River and its population of Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, and water management and conservation.
The dam site is composed of a volcanic rock called rhyolite, which can be porous. “The geology isn’t going to change,” Benjamin said. “We’re not confident that the geologies exist to support the rebuilding of the dam.
Teton County Commissioner Larry Young expressed similar sentiments. “Based on what I know about the geology, it’s not a good dam site,” he said. “History has certainly shown that. I understand that Idaho irrigators are looking for more storage area, but I don’t think that’s a good one.”
Commissioner Mark Trupp, whose family lives close to the dam site and saw its yard flooded by the dams failure, thinks rebuilding is the thing to do.
“It should be rebuilt for the original purposes of flood control, irrigation and tourism,” he said.
Teton Valley Chamber of Commerce President Reid Rogers was unavailable to comment on the chamber’s position on the rebuilding of the dam.
Karen Ballard, director of tourism for Idaho said the tourism council has not been presented with a proposal on how rebuilding would affect tourism. She said the council does not have a position on the issue currently.
Anderson: It’s just a study
Anderson said the federal money will simply be used to study the feasibility of another Teton Dam and stressed that other options would be considered.
“[The study] will look at other alternatives up there,” Anderson said. “This is not a design and construction – it’s an assessment.” In the 2007 report, the IDWR noted specifically that, when considering dam reconstruction, “overcoming negative perceptions may be a challenge.”
Anderson said Monday that once the funding is allocated, IDWR will work with the Bureau of Reclamation to develop a scope of work and a plan of study. He noted the money will come alongside funding for the water board to acquire an aquaculture facility in the Twin Falls area, and that that project is already moving forward.
“It’ll be a few months before we get all those details worked out,” Anderson said.
The Idaho Fish and Game Department, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation all said recently they were ready and willing to assist the state in whatever needs it has to study the surrounding tributaries and dam site but did not comment specifically on the feasibility of rebuilding the dam.
Lisa Nyren contributed to this report.