It’s Time to Move On From Teton Dam

Teton Dam remnants | Scott Bosse Remnants of the Teton Dam | Scott Bosse

The catastrophic failure of the Teton Dam in eastern Idaho 38 years ago this month will forever be remembered as a turning point that helped bring our nation’s modern dam-building era to an end.

The disaster took 11 lives, killed 20,000 head of livestock, and caused $2 billion in property damage. It also took an incalculable toll on native fish and wildlife in the Teton River Canyon.

So when the Idaho Legislature appropriated funds to study rebuilding Teton Dam in 2008, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) agreed to provide matching funds to conduct the study, it re-opened some nasty wounds for local residents who lived through the disaster.

It also made every angler, hunter and paddler who treasures eastern Idaho’s last free-flowing river awfully nervous.

The launch of the BOR’s so-called Henry’s Fork Basin Study four years ago prompted American Rivers to list the Teton River as the nation’s #8 most endangered river in our 2010 America’s Most Endangered Rivers® report.

To the BOR’s credit, it expanded the scope of the Henry’s Fork Basin study at the request of conservation groups to include not just replacing Teton Dam, but also a wide range of other alternatives for meeting eastern Idaho’s future water supply needs. Those alternatives included lining irrigation canals, optimizing irrigation systems, storing water in underground aquifers, and raising the height of existing dams on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.

The study initially examined more than two-dozen potential dam sites in the Henry’s Fork Basin, which it narrowed down to seven projects that held the highest promise for storing lots of water at an affordable price.

Teton Dam failure | US Bureau of Reclamation

The break in Teton Dam. 80 billion gallons (220,000 acre feet) of water released. At 350 feet, this is the highest dam that has ever failed.

Not surprisingly, when the final study was released in April, Teton Dam didn’t rank very high based on its exorbitant cost ($492 million, not including environmental mitigation), high environmental impacts, low social acceptability, and the fact that the reservoir behind it wouldn’t fill in severe drought years when irrigators need the water most.

“While there is significant potential for new surface storage…, social, cultural, and environmental considerations would be challenging to overcome,” said the BOR in its summary of the Teton Dam alternative.”

That assessment squares with a public opinion poll that American Rivers commissioned in December 2010, which found that residents of eastern Idaho prefer meeting the region’s future water supply needs by implementing water efficiency measures over rebuilding Teton Dam by a 63% to 26% margin.

Even the state of Idaho seems to have lost its enthusiasm for rebuilding Teton Dam. At a recent meeting in Rexburg, Idaho at which the final Henry’s Fork Basin Study was presented to stakeholders, a representative from the Idaho Department of Water Resources stated that Teton Dam wouldn’t be pursued for at least another 25 years.

It’s nice to see that the state of Idaho seems to have wised-up and is now focusing its resources on studying more affordable and environmentally benign alternatives for meeting eastern Idaho’s water supply needs such as raising Island Park Dam by a few feet and optimizing irrigation systems so they use water more efficiently.

In the meantime, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to kick off a Wild and Scenic suitability study this summer to determine if the Teton River Canyon and three of its major tributaries (Badger, Bitch and Canyon creeks) should be added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Wild and Scenic designation would forever protect them from new dams, dewatering and other threats.

We’ll let you know when that study gets off the ground so you can submit comments to the BLM urging them to recommend permanent protection for the Teton River Canyons.

To stay apprised of our efforts to protect the Teton Canyons, please visit our coalition website and “like” Save the Teton River Canyons on Facebook.

4 Responses to “It’s Time to Move On From Teton Dam”

Pat Kahn

I’m glad Idaho seems to have lost its enthusiasm for rebuilding Teton Dam. Building another dam there would be a disaster on so many levels.

April McEwen

I paddled both Bitch and Teton creeks when I lived in Wyoming. I definitely think they could/should be classified wild and scenic. It’s amazing especially in bitch creek how you’d never know there’s a canyon in there. Just looks like flat pasture land. But being down in that gorge is special, like you’re privy to a well-kept secret.

wild trout wesy

We are traveling over a 1,000 miles just to experience this area for what is. Not for what it could be.