Another Teton Dam

The golden age of dam building has long since passed, capped by the tragic failure in 1976 of the last big dam, an earthen structure on the Teton River of Idaho. Few new dam projects are being proposed these days, and many dams are being purposefully breached. But that hasn't stopped some from resurrecting the possibility of a new Teton Dam.
Crosscut archive image.

The Teton Dam collapse in 1976. (Bureau of Reclamation)

The golden age of dam building has long since passed, capped by the tragic failure in 1976 of the last big dam, an earthen structure on the Teton River of Idaho. Few new dam projects are being proposed these days, and many dams are being purposefully breached. But that hasn't stopped some from resurrecting the possibility of a new Teton Dam.

The Idaho Legislature has appropriated $400,000 to study building a new version of the Teton Dam, the 305-foot earth-fill structure that failed spectacularly in 1976, killing 11 people and 18,000 animals, flooding most of Rexburg, and nearly taking out Idaho Falls.

Teton Dam was the last big dam built anywhere in the West. Virtually all the more economically attractive dam sites had long since been taken. The Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) could have built Teton farther upstream, closer to the Teton River tributaries' sources in Grand Teton National Park, but even by BuRec standards, the economics of upstream dams looked dubious.

So BuRec chose a site near the edge of a bench above the Snake River plain, closer to the junction of the Teton and Henry's Fork, which then flows into the mainstem Snake. The giant earth-fill dam contained some 10 million cubic feet of dirt and rock, and spanned some 3200 feet between volcanic rock buttresses on either side. The reservoir behind it took years to fill. At the beginning of June 1976, it was almost full, with a quarter million acre-feet of water. Some of the water started seeping through channels in the rock below the northwest end of the dam. A couple of days before the collapse, people saw springs appearing in the rock.

Then, on the morning of June 5, wet spots appeared on the downstream face of the dam. They developed into sinkholes. A couple of bulldozers went out onto the dam and started pushing rocks into the holes. A whirlpool appeared ominously in the reservoir near the dam. The drivers barely got out in time, and the bulldozers themselves disappeared into the growing sinkhole. Everyone cleared out. The dam crest collapsed into a hole. At 11:57 a.m., only a few hours after the wet spots appeared, the whole dam gave way.

A wall of water roared down the riverbed, spread out onto the plain, destroyed houses and outbuildings, and poured into the town of Rexburg. Damage ran to a billion dollars. People worried that the Snake River, swollen with reservoir water, would flood the city of Idaho Falls, and there were some anxious moments when high water reached Idaho's second-largest city, but the Snake didn't quite top the embankments there.

The little farming community of Wilford, closest to the dam, got hit first. One hundred thirty-three of Wilford's 150 houses were destroyed. Six people drowned. After local radio broadcast word that the dam had failed, Alice Birch's two sons talked her into abandoning the Wilford home in which she had lived for 50 years. They and her grandson headed for higher ground. "As they drove toward St. Anthony," Wilda Birch of Idaho Falls wrote in That Day in June, an account of the dam failure published the following year by the Ricks College Press, "they could see the water coming like a huge cloud of dust. They estimated it was 20 feet high." Afterward, "(s)ome men who were on the Teton Hill south of the river reported to the family that when the water hit Alice's house, it lifted it up and over the light wires, and then the house exploded."

In Rigby, between Rexburg and Idaho Falls, Robyn Layton "watched at the window" of a second-floor apartment, from which "the first sign of the flood seemed like brown fingers sliding along the road. Then the rush came and all of a sudden it was there. A swirling brown mass carrying cars, huge logs, sheds, trailers and animals came crashing down Main Street breaking glass in store windows and spilling goods into the water."

Last month, writing in the Idaho Statesman, Rocky Barker noted the irony that "the dam, built for flood control, ended up causing more than a billion dollars in flood damages." (The dam was built for irrigation, electric power, and recreation, too, but flood control was indeed one of its stated purposes.)

Why would anyone want to revisit the scene of such an epic disaster? Aquifers are dropping — think of the Ogallala Aquifer beneath the Great Plains or the Odessa Aquifer beneath the potato fields of central Washington — farmers must compete for water with better-heeled cities and legally-protected wildlife, global climate change may alter the pattern of runoff, and irrigated agriculture is looking for more water storage.

This is true throughout the West. The Milltown Dam in Missoula is history, the Olympic Peninsula's Elwha dams are coming down, northern California's Klamath River dams may come down, and environmentalists still want the federal government to breach four dams on the lower Snake. The consensus that big dams equal social progress has dissolved. And yet . . .

People whose livelihoods depend on large supplies of cheap or free water naturally want the body politic to increase the available supply. No one is going to make more water. But by building or raising a dam, creating or enlarging a reservoir — and, of course, by charging irrigators less than the full cost — one can make more water available. Hence the Idaho legislature's appropriation of another $1.4 million to study raising the Minidoka Dam on the Snake River, near the town of Rupert, four or five feet. Hence the lobbying in arid central Washington for a Black Rock Dam, and the inclusion of several possible storage projects in the state's Columbia River planning.

One has little sympathy for the big corporate farms — much less for the rich "farmers" who collect fat government subsidies because they happen to have invested in agricultural land — but people whose families have been working smaller farms and orchards for generations have limited options.

Is it good or bad public policy to bail them out? That all depends on your values. It's a question of values that often masquerades as economics — just as both saving and over-harvesting wild salmon are often justified by phony economic arguments about the heavily subsidized commercial fishing industry. It's no less worthwhile to subsidize farmers who can't otherwise make a go of it than to subsidize artists who can't make a living on the open market — but it's no more worthwhile, either. In fact, it's basically no different. (Both are certainly a lot more attractive than, say, bailing out imprudent financial services companies.)

One can make a good argument for preserving certain activities, certain lifestyles, certain uses of the landscape. One can make a good argument for preserving the knowledge of how to grow food and the capacity to produce food locally. One may be able to make a good argument for preserving certain communities, rather than letting them go the traditional way of Western towns where the ore has run out or the railroad has stopped running or they've cut the last trees. But none of this should be confused with free enterprise.

And, in some people's minds, none of it justifies re-damming the Teton River. Rexburg, which suffered enormous emotional and financial tolls in the 1976 disaster, is now a rebuilt town of some 25,000 people, roughly half of whom are students at what used to be Ricks College and is now Brigham Young University-Idaho. Enthusiasm for a new Teton Dam doesn't extend to the people of Rexburg, who tend to remember what happened the last time the feds dammed the river. "Eastern Idaho farmers . . . said they still need the extra storage," Barker reported. "But Rexburg residents, who have the painful memories of family and friends dying and houses floating past them, vowed to fight it."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.