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Teton Dam

To rebuild or not to rebuild?

A couple days after the Teton Dam catastrophically collapsed in eastern Idaho (view article) on June 5th, 1976, causing the deaths of 11 people, millions of dollars in damages as well as displacing hundreds from their homes and ruining thousands of acres of productive cropland, Gov. Cecil D. Andrus flew into Rexburg in a National Guard helicopter.

He had been on an inspection flight and was simply stunned by the destruction the collapse of the 305-foot Bureau of Reclamation built dam had wrought.

The chopper landed near the Administration Building of what was then known as Ricks College and today is Brigham Young University – Idaho.  A group of newspaper and television reporters, with cameras in tow, spotted him getting out of the chopper and came charging across the lawn.

The first one to reach the governor was a television reporter from KSL-TV in Salt Lake City.  He breathlessly threw out the first question:  “Governor, are you going to rebuild the dam?”  Andrus’ eyes flashed in anger at the insensitivity and the impropriety of the question.

Using some choice words, which shouldn’t be repeated, the governor proceeded to tell the reporter what an insensitive, clod he was for asking such an inane question.

The question was premature by about 35 years.  Yes, it is still a controversial question with strong feelings on both sides in the Upper Snake River Valley.  According to a February article by Sven Berg in the Idaho Falls Post-Register the issue is being vigorously debated in homes and coffee shops. Rocky Barker also reported on the issue in the Idaho Statesman.

Surprisingly, the anti-dam building lobbying group, American Rivers, sponsored a survey of 300 folks living in eastern Idaho (The survey polled Idahoans from Twin Falls County east to Wyoming and has a plus or minus margin of 6%).

The group was astute enough to use Moore Information, a Portland-based political/public affairs polling firm that has worked on the campaigns of almost all major Republican office holders in Idaho, including Gov. Butch Otter, Congressman Mike Simpson and Sen. James Risch.

Moore’s polling showed the region still sharply divided and memories still fresh regarding the dam.  The Moore poll showed 45% in favor of rebuilding Teton and 34% opposed.  As Moore himself noted to the reporter:  “There isn’t a huge groundswell of opinion behind rebuilding that thing.”

In fact, the poll clearly showed that the public preferred less costly option that would do less harm to the environment.  Asked if they preferred making improvements in water efficiency to rebuilding the Teton Dam, by a 63% to 26% margin respondents overwhelmingly said yes.

Moore went on to say “Cost aside, the poll also found broad and deep support among respondents for protecting the region’s rivers for their natural and recreational values.”

Though recognizing the need for more water storage throughout the Snake River basin, for his part Gov, Andrus has always been skeptical about the site.  Before heading off to Washington, D.C., to serve in the cabinet of President Jimmy Carter, Andrus ordered the Idaho Department of Water Resources (view website) (IDWR) to conduct its own review of what went wrong.

Thus, when the Interior Department Solicitor, Leo Krulitz (learn more) came by a couple years later to ask what I thought Secretary Andrus’ reaction would be if Interior sued the dam contractor, the huge Boise-based construction firm of Morrison-Knudsen (learn more), I was able to tell him “that dog won’t hunt.”

“The first witness M-K attorneys will call will be the Secretary who will testify to the fact that IDWR’s review absolved M-K of any blame.  The state of Idaho had concluded that M-K built the dam to the criteria specified.  The flaw was with the designers in the Bureau of Reclamation, not with the contractor,” Krulitz was informed.

The solicitor backed off.

The dam suffered from a flawed design, but also a flawed site.  Any one who has ever watched the eerie film of the dam collapsing (watch on youtube) instinctively understands the flawed design that water was able to get in and around the side supports, literally melting away the underlying soil and rock, thus bringing on the disaster.

Andrus concluded that despite the hubris of engineers who think they can build anything anywhere, that particular site would never again past muster.

So it is with some surprise that Idahoans have been reading about the latest example of human hubris.  Andrus is one of those rare people who always learned from the few mistakes he made and moved on.  The state of Idaho and the good folks of the Upper Snake River Valley would be well advised to take their cue and follow his lead.

(Chris is a board member of the Andrus Center and the former Director of Public Affairs for the Department of the Interior.)