IDAHO FALLS – A new poll commissioned by the nation’s leading river conservation organization shows that residents of southeast Idaho prefer cheaper and less environmentally damaging water supply alternatives to rebuilding Teton Dam by a better than 2-to-1 margin.
The poll found residents of southeast Idaho prefer making improvements in water efficiency to rebuilding Teton Dam by a margin of 63% to 26%. The poll found a similar margin when voters were asked to choose between expanding existing dams and reservoirs or rebuilding Teton Dam.
Even when they were given no alternatives to rebuilding Teton Dam, only 45% of southeast Idaho voters – albeit a slight plurality – favored rebuilding the controversial structure.
The original 305-foot high Teton Dam failed catastrophically in 1976, killing 11 people, causing $2 billion in flood-related damages, and shaking the public’s faith in the Bureau of Reclamation, which built the dam. The Bureau of Reclamation and State of Idaho are in the midst of a two-year study to evaluate options for replacing the storage water that was lost when the dam failed.
The poll, conducted in December by Moore Information, asked 300 residents of southeast Idaho for their opinions on a variety of water-related issues. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percent.
The poll was funded by American Rivers, which listed the Teton River as the nation’s #8 most endangered river in its 2010 Most Endangered Rivers report.
The results were not surprising to pollster Bob Moore of Moore Information, whose list of Idaho clients includes Governor Butch Otter, Senator Jim Risch, Congressman Mike Simpson, and the J.R. Simplot Company.
“In this economic climate, people are going to make choices based on cost first and foremost, and building new dams is extraordinarily expensive,” Moore said.
Governor Butch Otter and the Idaho Legislature are faced with closing a $340 million budget gap this year. The cost to rebuild Teton Dam is estimated at $500 million to $1 billion.
“Cost aside, the poll also found broad and deep support among southeast Idahoans for protecting the region’s rivers for their natural and recreational values,” Moore added.
An overwhelming 88% of the people polled agreed that Idaho should either protect its rivers at all cost or strike a balance between protecting rivers for their natural values and harnessing them to sustain economic growth. Only 7% of respondents said rivers should be harnessed for water and power even if it comes at the expense of the environment.
For Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies Director at American Rivers, the poll results were both eye opening and heartening.
“Ever since Teton Dam failed, there has been an ongoing debate over whether it should be rebuilt,” Bosse said. “We wanted to know how the silent majority of southeast Idahoans felt. Now we know. They want pragmatic, affordable alternatives that don’t needlessly destroy our last, best free-flowing rivers.”
That sentiment was echoed by Kim Trotter of Trout Unlimited, who grew up in eastern Idaho and whose organization has been a leader in the effort to come up with alternatives to rebuilding Teton Dam.
“Rebuilding Teton Dam is the most expensive, controversial option that is being evaluated in the Bureau of Reclamation study,” Trotter said. “We believe there’s a lot of low hanging fruit out there in the form of water conservation and aquifer recharge that would be much cheaper, less damaging to our rivers, and could be implemented much faster than rebuilding the dam.”
On the subject of permanently protecting the Teton River Canyon from new dams, the poll found residents of southeast Idaho split down the middle, with 40% of respondents supporting the idea, 40% opposing it, and 20% undecided.
Mike Dawes, partner and guide at WorldCast Anglers in Victor, is not among the undecideds.
“I’ve been fortunate to have floated the Teton Canyon more than a hundred times,” he said. “Not only is it one of the most spectacular canyons in eastern Idaho, but it’s also one of the last places in the West where you can catch native cutthroat trout all day long and have the river pretty much to yourself. Anyone who thinks we should spend a billion dollars to dam that canyon obviously hasn’t been there.”
American Rivers is the leading organization working to protect and restore the nation’s rivers and streams. Rivers connect us to each other, nature, and future generations. Since 1973, American Rivers has fought to preserve these connections, helping protect and restore more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects, and the annual release of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®.
Headquartered in Washington, DC, American Rivers has offices across the country and more than 100,000 supporters, members, and volunteers nationwide. Visit www.americanrivers.org, www.facebook.com/americanrivers and www.twitter.com/americanrivers.