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Carlson: Rebuild or not?

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Thirty-five years ago this week the Teton Dam in eastern Idaho catastrophically collapsed on June 5, 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.

Governor Cecil D. Andrus flew to Rexburg, jumped in a National Guard helicopter for an inspection flight and was simply stunned by the destruction the collapse had wrought.

The chopper returned and landed near the Administration Building of what was then known as Ricks College and today is Brigham Young University-Idaho. A group of newspaper reporters and television anchors with camera men spotted him getting out of the chopper and came charging at him across the lawn.

The first one to reach the Governor was 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 words, which can’t be repeated in a family newspaper, the Governor proceeded to dress down the reporter for the insensitive, and inane question.

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

Surprisingly, the anti-dam building lobbying group, American Rivers, sponsored a survey of 300 folks living in eastern Idaho. They were 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 Governor Butch Otter, Second District Congressman Mike Simpson and Senator James Risch.

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

Though recognizing the need for more water storage throughout the Snake River basin, Governor Andrus has always been skeptical about the site. Before heading off to Washington, D.C., to serve in the cabinet of President Jimmy Carter some seven months later, Andrus ordered the Idaho Department of Water Resources to conduct its own review of what went wrong.

Thus, when the Interior Department Solicitor, Leo Krulitz (yes, he is related to all the Krulitzes residing in Shoshone County) 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, 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.

So he backed off.

It really was a flawed design, but also it was a flawed site. Any one who has ever watched the eerie film of the dam collapsing instinctively understands 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 he’s 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.

A native of Kellogg, a former teacher at Kootenai, and a former journalist, Chris served as press secretary to former Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus for ten years. He is the founding partner of the Gallatin Group, is now retired and he and his wife, Marcia, reside at Medimont.

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