Lawmakers Have Their Eye
by Rocky Barker
1976 Teton Dam disaster is just one hurdle facing any project to store more water and make more electricity
While Gov. Butch Otter and the Idaho Legislature talk about ways to build new dams and enlarge existing ones, the discussions are framed by two floods - one that some fear could happen at any minute, and another more than three decades ago that still hangs over the part of the state once devastated by its power. Weiser residents are watching the weather closely as above-average snowpack threatens to swell the Weiser River, which has no dam, to flood stage this spring.
And a proposal to rebuild the Teton Dam, which burst in 1976 and killed 11 people, has some Rexburg residents uneasy.
Both floods are a part of the discussion as Gov. Butch Otter and others express new interest in building more dams here in Idaho.
Lawmakers want the federal Bureau of Reclamation to study the long-proposed Galloway Dam on the Weiser, update studies on the Teton Dam and consider raising the Minidoka Dam on the Snake River near Rupert to increase its capacity. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has approved spending $1.8 million for the Minidoka and Teton dam studies.
The House is considering a non-binding memorial calling on more studies, including Galloway and a proposed Twin Springs Dam on the Middle Fork of the Boise River. Both ideas, along with a new Teton Dam, have generated opposition from environmental groups.
The environmental movement, including groups like the Sierra Club, was able to stop new dams in the 1970s because of concerns over the costs and benefits and the ecological impacts.
But it is an environmental and agriculture activist who presented a plan last week to the Idaho Water Resources Board to raise Idaho Power Co.'s Swan Falls Dam on the Snake River southwest of Kuna by 50 feet. The board took no action, but the proposal by Matt Yost demonstrates how interest in increased water storage has grown in the face of drought, growth and climate change.
"The real story is there is an emerging recognition we are going to need additional water supplies soon," said Norm Semanko, Idaho Water Users Association executive director.
TETON DAM'S 'GHOSTS'
The Bureau of Reclamation built the Teton Dam on the Teton River in the 1970s, the last major dam built in the West. It was completed in 1976 and failed as it filled June 5. When the dam gave out, 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 for flood control, ended up causing more than a billion dollars in flood damages. The Bureau of Reclamation has already studied rebuilding the dam and has said for years it could build one safely on the Teton River.
Eastern Idaho farmers, who suffered the worst drought in nearly 50 years in 1977, said they still need the extra storage. But Rexburg residents, who have the painful memories of family and friends dying and houses floating past them, vowed to fight it.
Eventually, the irrigation districts quit proposing the dam. But the fight over the limited water in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer has resurrected the notion of rebuilding Teton Dam among irrigators.
Republican Rep. Dell Raybould of Rexburg never stopped supporting the idea.
"We cannot afford to waste any of Idaho's water and let it go out of state," Raybould said.
But Rexburg residents still aren't sure.
"I think the sentiment is pretty much the same as it was when the water was here," said Rexburg City Clerk Blair Kay. "But the need for water is still the same, and I think it will be widely discussed."
State officials are looking at one alternative to build several lakes above the canyon that not only would provide storage but also might be attractive for developers.
Democratic House minority Leader Rep. Wendy Jaquet of Ketchum supports the studies but she's skeptical Teton Dam can garner wide support.
"There are ghosts around the Teton Dam proposal," she said.
RAISING A DAM AND RECHARGE
The project with the most support is raising Minidoka Dam near Rupert by four to five feet. That would increase the reservoir's storage capacity by up to 50,000 acre feet, and it could help the aquifer fight, too - more seepage from a bigger lake would add water to the underground reservoir.
The Bureau of Reclamation has done some preliminary studies, but to conduct a full feasibility study, the state needs to match $1.2 million.
"Now is the only time we get the window of opportunity," said House Resources and Conservation Committee Chairman Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert.
The opposition to raising dams is not expected to be as strong as for new dams like Teton. Already, longtime opponents like the Idaho Environmental Council have come out in opposition to studies of a new Teton Dam.
ANOTHER BOISE DAM?
Twin Springs Dam was proposed on the Middle Fork of the Boise River, a popular recreational river a short drive from the Treasure Valley.
Environmentalists have long opposed it, but farmers and irrigation districts say the additional storage of 300,000 acre-feet - about a third of what the existing Boise River dams hold - is necessary to meet growth needs without drying up farms.
But flood control would likely outweigh storage needs as the justification for building new Boise River dams, state officials have said. A major flood, larger than the projected 100-year flood, would cause widespread damage in Boise and downriver and could prompt a new look at Twin Springs, said Idaho Water Resources Director David Tuthill. Like the Teton Dam, alternative proposals that would dam tributaries and not the Middle Fork itself are on engineers' drafting tables.
The Galloway Dam is another long-considered project that has never drawn the local support it needs to move forward, even when the federal government was actively paying to build dams.
But House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said building the dam on the Weiser River would not only provide flood control but also enough storage to offset the 480,000 acre-feet Idaho provides for flushing salmon down the Snake River. That could leave more water in Cascade Reservoir for recreation and water quality.
"I think one of the wisest things we can do in Idaho is to invest in water," Roberts said.
But environmental groups were skeptical about Galloway when it was proposed 15 years ago.
A NEW IDEA
Yost, a former associate with Idaho Rivers United and former executive director of Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited - all conservation groups - now works with farmer groups. He proposes that the state raise, by 50 feet, the Swan Falls Dam on the Snake River south of Kuna. Yost - who announced Wednesday he plans to run for the Legislature as a Democrat - is carrying forward the idea his uncle, the late Rupert farmer George Grant, first dreamed up.
The plan would provide 340,000 acre-feet of storage and increase Swan Falls' electrical output tenfold, Yost said. The water could be piped to the Treasure Valley to meet growth needs and could be used for salmon.
"In a nutshell, the idea is to create more storage in Idaho in an area that solves more of Idaho's water problems than the other currently suggested water storage projects create," Yost said.
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