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Remembering Teton Dam

carlson CHRIS


We launched our drift boat for a day of fly fishing on Idaho’s Teton River at a site within what was for a brief period of time the reservoir behind the Bureau of Reclamation constructed Teton Dam which catastrophically collapsed on June 5

Eleven lives were lost, as well as 13,000 head of cattle. The government paid out $300 million in damages though the total value of the destruction wrought by the cascading wave of water was more like $2 billion.

To stand at what was once the bottom of the 17 mile long reservoir, and imagine the surface of the stored 288,000 acre/feet some 240 feet above one’s head, and then look downstream at the remaining evidence of the 310 foot high and .6 of a mile long earthen dam was weird to say the least.

Having seen video of the collapse many times though (Still easily seen on YouTube), it was easy to envision the massive power of the pent-up water bursting forth at an incredible 2,000,000 cubic feet per second rate, roaring down the remaining six miles of the canyon before starting to fan out over Snake River plain farmland and flooding a number of communities from Wilford to Rexburg.

My fly fishing bud, Father Steve Dublinski, pastor of Spokane’s St. Augustine Catholic parish, and I were concluding a week-long fly fishing jaunt around Idaho that had seen us fish some of Idaho’s finest waters including the Big Wood River, the north and east forks of the Big Lost, and several selected spots on the main Salmon.

Since the collapse of the dam the Teton had become well-known as a fine cutthroat, rainbow and cutbow fishery with anglers coming to the area from all over the world.

Our guide and host this fine July morning was Idaho native Doug Siddoway, a member of the large sheep ranching family in southeastern Idaho. Doug’s cousin is State Senator Jeff Siddoway, from Terreton, who represents the sprawling 35th district. Doug though is considered the “black sheep” in the family because he is an outspoken Democrat.

Doug graduated from St. Anthony’s South Fremont High School and went onto Notre Dame where he obtained his bachelor’s degree. He then attended and graduated with a law degree from the University of Utah’s law school.

While he and his wife, Lauri, reside in Spokane, they maintain a farm with a lovely, modern-designed home outside of Ashton. Doug is and Lauri was a member of the Randall, Danskin law firm before Washington Governor Christine Gregoire appointed Lauri to the Washington Court of Appeals in March of 2010.

As we drifted down the river past where the dam had stood we discussed the hubris that must have existed within the Bureau of Reclamation that allowed them to believe they could safely build an earthen structure in the basaltic and rhylotic rock and soil that constituted the edge of the dam.

Even today, fissures can be seen which the Bureau felt could easily be filled by an influx of grouting to minimize leaking. They tragically guessed wrong.

Drifting by where the dam had stood brought a flood of memories. I recalled the day when Leo Krulitz, the Interior Department’s Solicitor, called to ask whether the Department should sue the dam’s primary contractor – the Boise firm of Morrison-Knudsen.

I didn’t think much of the idea since M-K’s first witness would be the former Idaho governor and current Interior secretary, his boss and mine, Cecil D. Andrus. I told Krulitz the governor had ordered an immediate review by the Department of Water Resources, which exonerated the contractor finding they had followed the design specifications put forth by the Bureau of Reclamation. Krulitz wisely dropped the idea.

I also recalled the governor arriving at Ricks College by helicopter following
our first overflight inspection of the devastated area. As we disembarked a thundering herd of journalists descended and a tv reporter from Salt Lake thrust a microphone into the governor’s face and shouted, “Governor, are you going to rebuild the dam?”

The normally unflappable Andrus, coldly looked at the guy and said (with curse words omitted) that was the dumbest question one could ask when the focus was providing relief to people in need of help, and that if the guy didn’t get the mic out of his face he was going to jam it down his throat.

Siddoway loved the story. However, he said that sadly there were some in the area with short memories who incredibly were once again talking about rebuilding the dam.

It makes no sense from either an environmental point of view or an economic point of view, he said. “Why destroy a thriving fishery for a questionable project that would primarily provide more water to grow more crops that would only further depress prices?” Doug asked. Why, indeed.

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