Gov. Butch Otter has long advocated additional storage as a solution to Idaho water problems. We will learn today if he plans to spend state money to begin that process.
Dan Popkey and Heath Druzin asked Otter last month whether he planned to propose a study of rebuilding the Teton Dam. Otter’s reply was quick and succinct: “no comment.”
For those of you too young to remember, the Bureau of Reclamation built the Teton Dam on the Teton River in the 1970s. It was completed in 1976 and failed as it filled June 5. When the dam finally gave, a wall of water, 300,000 acre feet rolled across eastern Idaho through the towns of Teton, Newdale, Sugar City and Rexburg.
At least 11 people died and the dam, built ironically for flood control, ended up causing more than a million in flood damages. I came to Idaho a decade later and the debate over rebuilding it was still serious.
The Bureau of Reclamation, whose engineers had failed to recognize the special problems with the porous canyon walls that led to the earthen dam’s failure, wanted a chance to prove they could build a dam right at the site. Eastern Idaho farmers, who suffered the worst drought in nearly 50 years in 1977, said they still needed the extra storage.
But Rexburg residents, who had the painful memories of family and friends dying and houses floating past them, vowed the fight it. Eventually, the irrigation districts quit proposing it.
But the current water shortage and Eastern Snake Plain aquifer dispute has resurrected the Teton Dam among irrigators.
The federal government quit building big irrigation projects after Teton Dam failed. But the rising value of water could make the project pencil out.
Rebuilding a big dam still likely will take a new financing scheme and the state will have to take the lead on the study costs at least.
It still faces tremendous opposition from a coalition of folks beginning with national environmental groups. But expect to hear from the veterans of the 1976 flood too.
The other old project that is always brought up is the Galloway project on the Weiser River. Idaho Water Resources director Dave Tuthill has been calling for a new generation of water projects.
We’ll see today if Teton Dam is on Otter’s wish list.