Not much support for rebuilding the Teton Dam

Survey of Eastern Idaho residents shows them generally against rebuilding-

The deadly collapse of the Teton Dam east of Rexburg, Idaho, in June 1976 was one of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s worst moments. Conservationists had been fighting the dam as a waste of money and destruction of a beautiful fishing stream.  The canyon was also filled with wildlife, especially in the winter.

No one thought it would collapse, but the dam fell apart as soon as they filled it. Eleven people drowned and there was a billion dollars damage. Incredible as it my seem, some local irrigators started agitating to rebuild. It was an unpleasant joke, but most forgot about it until recently when some “penny pinching” members of the Idaho legislature starting saying it should be rebuilt, hopefully by Uncle Sucker.

American Rivers commissioned a poll in the area. They found a slight majority in favored of rebuilding the dam, but when presented with an alternative, greater efficiency of water use, the number were strongly against it.

Given the economic climate it is hard to see how Congress would appropriate a billion dollars to rebuild this structure. Rocky Barker has a full story on his blog in the Idaho Statesman.







  1. jdubya Avatar

    GOOD. This concept should die and never again be resurrected. And long with it should go the the proposed Green River dam by Pinedale, and the pipeline of Green River water to Denver. Water projects in the west always bring out the needy and greedy hands.

    1. Mtn Mama Avatar
      Mtn Mama

      Well said.I am glad that nature prevailed in Rexburg.
      Denver Water has several planning projects in the works to divert “more” water to the CO Front Range. I think they will build dams and divert run off until the mountains are dry and everyone on the semi-arid Front Range has a green lawn. Their defense against the need to build more is
      ” In 2007, there was $11.3 million spent on conservation in Colorado — $8 million of that was by Denver Water. The utility continues its aggressive conservation campaign and designation of significant funds toward that end.”

  2. Alan Gregory Avatar

    I and at least a dozen other Idaho State U students floated the Teton River a year or two before dam construction began. But event hen the engineers had been conducting tests to determine the porosity, etc., of the canyon wall, leaving their marks behind on the faces of rocks. It was a beautiful canyon then, though, with sparkling trout water. Don’t do it, politicians and your friends in industrial America. Don’t do it.

  3. PointsWest Avatar

    Prior to the construction of the Teton Dam in 1976, the Teton River in the Cayon was one of the most scenic floats and perhaps the best fishery in Idaho. Really. I know. It is still very scenic and a good fishery but the fishery is not what it was. When the reservior drained during the dam collapse in just 4 hours, swift currents and decompression of the canyon walls caused several rock falls that created at least a couple of dozen rock dams in the river. Now, much of the river is a series of dams and pools. Some of the pools are good fishing but, on the whole, the fishery has been degraded.

    The Teton Canyon is also very critical winter habitat. Many deer and elk from Teton National Park winter in Teton Canyon. It is great winter habitat, especially on the southern exposure of the canyon that runs for miles and is largely snow free for most of the winter. It will be even more important now with wolves. Deer and elk can disperse along the dozens of miles of canyon making it more difficult for wolves.

    The Canyon is still largely owned by the BOR. The BLM owns much of the land outside and above the BOR land and the BLM is proposing that the Teton be designated for Wild and Senic River status.

    I happen to be deeply involved in this study. Everyone knows a rebuild of the Teton Dam is unlikely. There are some much more attractive alternatives and the study is, perhaps, more about the alternatives than a rebuild of the Teton Dam. Probably the most attractive of all is an idea of mine I call Teton Lake. It is being called Lane Lake by the BOR. It is a large off-stream reservior north of the Canyon in a depression known as Hog Hollow. Hog Hollow is actually an older Yellowstone caldera and will store a lot of water.

    The new interest water storage in the Henry’s Fork drainage is due to the lawsuits by the trout farms near Hagerman. There was a curtailment order to many irrigators in that area that would take 180,000 acres of land out of production if enforced. So the stakes are high. The Snake River Aquifer has already been depleted and I believe the lawsuits are asking the irrigators and the Idaho Department of Water Resouces for a remedy. There are junior water rights holders, such as the City of Idaho Falls, that could have their water rights curtailed as part of the ongoing lawsuits. The Henry’s Fork drainage has always been understored. It was why they wanted the Teton Dam back in the 60’s and 70’s. The Henry’s Fork supplies a third of all water in the Snake River, the life blood of Idaho.

    The study is also about conservation efforts but these conservation efforts can be expensive and will not fill the water void that has already been created by farmers pumping from the Snake River Aquifer.

    My hope is that this Teton lake (or Lane Lake) will be built. The BOR will remove most of the rock fall dams in the Teton River, and then the Teton River be designated as a Wild and Scenic River to be protected forever. I am working in this direction and I think many others are too.

  4. PointsWest Avatar

    I have been communicating with the BOR and the IDWR for years about my concept of a Teton Lake. My Teton Lake concept involves joining two basins into one. It is the same lake as what the BOR calls Lane Lake except the BOR looks at the two basin separately. They call one Lane Lake and the other North Lane Lake.

    Here is a GIS map the BOR gave me showing Lane Lake and North Lane Lake…

    Here is my Teton Lake concept side by side with the old Teton Dam for comparison. It is looking south. Notice that the Teton Lake concept is the same as the two Lane Lakes except that the north basin reservoir has the same surface elevation as the south basin reservior.

    I asked the BOR why they did not show these two reservoirs conjoined and they said that per their protocol, they are only looking at a reconnaissance level at this point and are not ready to look at engineering. However, if you notice that in the meeting presentation last month…

    …they only show Lane Lake and do not show North Lane Lake which is the larger of the two basins. Actually, with some dikes, the surface elevation of North Lane Lake could be raised by 15 to 25 feet making it much larger than Lane Lake.

    I’ve studied this Teton Lake or Lane Lake problem for years. It could store something north of 200,000 acre-ft with about 8,000 lineal feet of dikes…as much or more as the Teton Dam. It would probably cost less to construct and produce as much or more power revenues. It may nearly pay for itself. It would certainly have less negative environmental impacts than the Teton Dam and would have many positive impacts that I can list if anyone is interested.

    Even if they build in two separate reservoirs (Lane Lake and North Lane Lake), since they would use the same diversions, same canals, and same penstock to a powerhouse in Teton Canyon, there would be no reason to build one and NOT build the other. If one is built, the other will be built. Why did the BOR not present both together last month?

    I looked at all these options in the meeting presentation years ago and am against every other option since they dam trout streams, except maybe the one on Badger Creek where you get a lot of bang for the buck.

  5. PointsWest Avatar

    Here is a little video produced by Trout Unlimited about the Teton River…

    The Teton Canyon is really a gem.

    1. PointsWest Avatar

      There is a little mis-info in this little video. The estimates for a rebuild of the Teton Dam (that I am againsts) is more in the $5 to $6 hundred million range…only some extreme groups are putting the estimate at a billion. The Dam would produce hydropower on the order of $15 to $20 millon per year…depending on power rates that have a habit of climbing. When you captialize this revenue stream of $15 million per year, it is worth something like $3 to $4 hundred million. So power revenues will pay for most of the dam. TU fails to mention this. My Teton Lake concept would produce more than the Teton Dam since it sits 500 feet above the canyon. I estimated its cost, for a basic system, at about $390 million. The power revenues would nearly cover the cost of construction.

      Conservation efforts are good. I am all for them. But by themselves, are simply not enough. I would like to see a gravity feed pipeline system for the entire upper valley. Steams like the North and South Teton near Rexburg could be fine trout streams once again.

      The idea of storing water in the Snake River Aquifer has some merit except it is costly. It is not so easy to get water into an aquifer. It will involve constuction of dams, canals, of running water over vast areas of land, and injection wells. Then, once you have the water in the aquifer, you need to pay to get it out since you need large pumps that use lots of energy pumping the water up several hundred feet to the surface. So the aquifer idea has its costs and its problems. TU acts like no one can figure out what a great idea this is. Aquifers are used in Phoenix and Tucon but these are a different type of aquifer and the wells, used for injection, were already in place. Engineers only had to reverse the flow.

  6. PointsWest Avatar

    One more article about the new approach to the Henry’s Fork Special Study that is most about alternatives to the Teton Dam

  7. PointsWest Avatar

    Will Cities lose their water? …yes.

    A “water delivery call” is made when the holder of a senior water right experiences a shortfall in the water they are beneficially using and are entitled to receive. The IDWR then issues an order requiring the holders of junior water rights either to mitigate the effects of their diversions or stop diverting water in order to satisfy the senior right.

    Look at this list of irrigators and CITIES that received a delivery call a few months ago. Scroll down to “C” where it lists the City of Ammon, City of Idaho Falls, City of Pocatello and just about every other city in southern Idaho. So it is not just nasty farmers and evil ranchers who might get their water shut off, it is also family homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals in the many towns of southern Idaho. It might be your home. This may give you an idea of magnitude of the water crisis in Idaho.

    1. PointsWest Avatar

      Even the IDAHO FISH & WILDLIFE FOUNDATION recieved a delivery call for their use of water for FISH PROPAGATION. Just scroll down to “I” in the above PDF.

    2. WM Avatar


      Don’t be so fast with your conclusion. Notwithstanding the water priority issues you identify, and the cause for the curtailment letters including the names of those entities on the “list” you identify, most states have a statutory recognized beneficial use hierarchy. It usually puts uses for people – commercial and industrial use – as a higher priority use than irrigation for agriculture. I believe ID is one of those states. Unless you pull domestic drinking water from a well, that is dependent on recharge from surface irrigation (and there may be some of those cases), it would be unlikely human related activites will be significantly affected (maybe a golf course or park doesn’t get watered). Of course, water can be bought and sold on the open market, senior rights being the most desireable and costly. A city can buy water rights at market prices that had previously been used of agriculture (in some instances very inefficient use in leaky ditches and oversaturating some soils with the bulk of the water, while sometimes little gets to its intended destination. Thus the agricultural land may go out of production. If it is hay, maybe that is no big deal. Water commissioners also orchestrate the delivery of water within a river system, so not all the senior rights of downstream users are satisfied while some juniors upstream get dried out. Inefficient system, for sure, but for the most part is kind of works even in exceptionally dry years. Is it bad in drought years, and will it get worse with global warming? You bet, but citie won’t be the ones to suffer. It will be agriculture and junior rights holders.

      However, generally your point is well taken.

      1. WM Avatar

        And, I forgot to mention, where in-stream flows have been purchased/appropriated for the beneficial use of survival and propagation of fish and wildlife, they may go unsatisfied AND wildlife will suffer. In effect, a stream can theoretically be completely dried up to satisfy out of stream diversions for those who own the rights to water at the expense of in-stream uses and water specifically appropriated to remain IN-STREAM. A major flaw of Western water law and the “prior appropriation” system.

      2. PointsWest Avatar

        I don’t know about the “beneficial use hierarchy” in Idaho. One thing I should have pointed out, is that I believe everyone on this list is a “pumper” who pumps water from the SRP-Aquifer (Snake River Plain Aquifer). The SRP Aquifer runs from just north of Rexburg to just west of Hagerman.

        The list I posted is for those who recieved a “delivery call” which is a preliminary step before a “curtailment order”. They may have serveral years to mitigate or challenge the delivery call, especially in this case of the SRP-Aquifer where there is little legal precedence. This legal wrangling was initiated by the three or so large trout farms near Hagerman who use spring water from the SRP-Aquifer. I have read these pumper, including cities, may end up with a curtailment order and be forced to get thier water elsewhere…the cities maybe by buying water rights from farmers and taking farmland out of production. Summer before last, there was a curtailment order given to pumpers on 180,000 acres near Hagerman. The pumpers filed suit. There are at least three lawsuit pending over water rights on the SRP-Aquifer.

        The legal wrangling is long and complicated…makes the wolves and ESA issue seem like a cake walk. But a few salient points are, Idaho has been drawing water from the SRP-Aquifer for about 50 years. It is being depleted of water. Idaho is using more water than what flows in its river and/or is stored in its reservoirs. Something has to give. As much as 800,000 acres of farmland is at risk. More water storage will save farmland from going out of production and it is almost certain that some will.

  8. PointsWest Avatar

    Below is an email I sent to a high official in the Gov.

    Yes, I am aware that tail waters below dams are good fisheries. I’ve read it is mostly due to dams keeping water cool and maintaining minimum flows. Still, the Teton Dam would inundate 17 miles of river. Many of the other proposed sites would inundate miles of streams that are already cool water and good fisheries. Conant Creek, for example, can be a good fishery but is dewatered by a large irrigation canal and several pumps to a point where it warms in late summer and is reduced to a trickle. With storage in the area, irrigators could draw their water from a reservoir and not dewater the streams in late summer. Conant Creek is large enough to float when it is not being dewatered by irrigators. It might be restored to be a great fishery. Fall River is also dewatered. In 1976, Fall River went dry. I can remember seeing the F&G out in the river channel trying to salvage the trout. In 2006 I read that the Enterprise Canal, which diverts from Fall River, went dry. I was not around to see it but assume the river was dry again. If irrigation water was drawn from a reservoir, rather than from Fall River, Fall River would be improved as a fishery. Both Conant Creek and Fall River would greatly benefit from something like a Teton Lake. The lower Tetons (North and South Teton) near Rexburg might also benefit since they might be able to maintain their flows. Some water from storage will be going to downstream irrigators in August and will keep the lower Tetons flowing.

    I understand the role of dams in controlling the spawning of rainbow trout, but also know that, in smaller streams, it can be controlled by fish traps.

    What “environmental issues” do you see for a Teton Lake? It seems like the lake itself would be an add. You get a recreational lake and you get water in an area of dryfarm for irrigation. Much of the dryfarm country around the lake will become second home ranches with irrigated pastures and aspen groves with ponds all of which will improve habitat for deer, small animals, upland game, and waterfowl. Maybe the state could build a small state park on this lake and restore aspen. The entire area was once covered in aspen.

    There is the issues of diversions from Fall River and Bitch Creek. I have already come up with some low impact diversion ideas. Both of these streams have a tremendous spring runoff where their headwaters are in high country with heavy snowpack. Fall River regularly flows at 3000 to 5000 cfs in May or June when most of the water might be diverted. It then drops to a tenth of that during the irrigation season in August when irrigators suck it dry. Bitch Creek can flow at 2000 cfs or more in the spring and then go dry in August.

    In general, it would be an environment plus to divert water from these streams during the high spring runoff and not divert in late summer (as is done now) when the flows become low.

    As for water storage, by increasing the size of the dikes, by my careful calculations, a Teton Lake could store as much as 250,000 acre ft. But this is not all. There are more storage sites in Hog Hollow. It would require adding a few more large dams but you could use the diversions and infrastructure already in place and add maybe another 100,000 acre feet or more in the future.

    All this will be discussed in the future. I only sent the email because I think the BOR should have presented the full story of Teton Lake or the two Lane Lakes. Dave Tuthill told me he used my image of an aerial view Teton Lake in his Power Point presentation to dozens of audiences to garner interest in the study. He later told me that funding was finally achieved for a study and that Teton Lake would be studied as an alternative. He said he would like me, “to be involved in the study.” I have the email. Now that he has retired and the BOR is in control of the study, the only serious alternative presented was the one basin at 69,000 acre feet. The other basin, even without dikes, is significantly larger and they did not even present it! I don’t get it. It does not make sense. I hope they do not have an agenda to not present all the good alternatives to the Teton Dam and I think that Teton Lake (aka Lane Lakes) is the only good alternative.

    Personally, I think the BOR or anyone else should give up the ghost on the Teton Dam. I saw the American Rivers poll. 25% are strongly against it. That is a bad number and it is even worse if there is an alternative. The BOR should remove many of the rock fall dams in the Teton River and the Teton should get its designation as a Wild and Scenic River and I suspect that after much wrangling, that is exactly what will be done.


    1. PointsWest Avatar

      This was in repsponse to an email sent to me today.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan