California Dam Crisis Highlights Issues With Idaho Dams

Feb 15, 2017

Teton Dam collapse.
Credit Bureau of Reclamation / | Flickr Creative Commons

The recent threat of catastrophic flooding at the Oroville Dam in Northern California has abated for the moment, but the incident dredged up old memories of Idaho's own dam catastrophe.

In June of 1976, the earthen Teton Dam in eastern Idaho failed, killing 11 people and causing $2 billion in damage. It cost $100 million to construct, but the government ended up paying over thrice that in damage claims linked to the failure.

Environmental groups in California charged the Oroville complex was vulnerable over a decade ago. Now, renewed scrutiny is being paid to Idaho's Mackay Dam, which was built in 1919.

The nearly century-old structure has survived floods, intentional dynamite detonations and the 1983 Borah earthquake, which came in at 7.3 on the Richter scale. While the facility has weathered everything thrown at it in its first hundred years, the Idaho Statesman reports dam safety officials label Mackay a “high hazard.”

Along with Mackay, there are about a dozen other older dams across Idaho with the “high hazard” designation. Should the dams fail, they would present an immediate threat to human safety and lives. Inspectors have recommended the dams undergo safety upgrades that would cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars; however, they know the refurbishments won't happen given the high price tag and slim chance of a critical incident.

While close to a dozen state-owned dams present a hazard, federally operated dams like Lucky Peak undergo more stringent inspections and maintain higher safety standards.

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