Fish Creek Dam near Carey has been named by the Association of Dam Safety Officials as one of four "high-hazard" dams in Idaho.
The dam was included on a list of 14 dams in the state considered structurally deficient. The "high-hazard" designation means that if the dam fails, it poses a significant threat to human life.
The Association of State Dam Safety Officials is a non-profit organization of state and federal dam safety regulators, dam owners and others interested in dam safety.
"Dams across the county are living on borrowed time, and many communities are at risk," said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, a non-profit organization promoting river conservation and, in some cases, dam removal.
However, the level of threat posed by the Fish Creek Dam, 11 miles north of Carey, is a matter of debate.
The 92-foot-high, 1,700-foot-wide dam has been on the radar of the Idaho Department of Water Resources for years now. The concrete structure, built in the 1930s and privately operated by Fish Creek Reservoir Co., was originally sanctioned to hold roughly 12,000 acre-feet of water. It currently holds about half that, and delivery to farms was between 17 percent and 20 percent of normal flow this year. Rights to hold full capacity will not be reinstalled until the Idaho Department of Water Resources deems it safe. Repairs have been ongoing since 2003.
The Fish Creek Reservoir Co. is comprised of 35 families who hold water rights for crop irrigation and are in charge of maintaining the dam. The families are looking for a way to raise $6 million for a new dam—a difficult task when crops, and thus income, are presently stifled by the lack of water flowing from the nearly defunct dam.
A large section of the dam has been removed while contractors working for Fish Creek Reservoir Co. complete the latest series of required repairs.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources is saddled with the responsibility of ensuring dams are safe.
"We have required the owner to open sections of the structure," said Charles D. Galloway, the department's chief of resource protection. "The structure will not store at capacity until all repairs are approved and completed."
The department called on Fish Creek Reservoir Co. to install an early-warning system in the area below Fish Creek Dam. The warning is triggered by water flow and is tested twice a week.
However, one Carey resident, who did not want to speak on the record, said the dam has undergone several safety-related improvements, none of which seem to appease the Department of Water Resources. The resident contended the department has overreacted, and in the process the families who depend on consistent flow of water have suffered.
"We have done everything we can to keep that creek system in business," said state Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, in a phone interview. "Even if there was a huge event, an earthquake for example, the highway would be in danger, but there's not a huge danger to homes or residents."
Galloway said no dam in Idaho that the department considers deficient is permitted to be filled to capacity.
"In Idaho we (Department of Water Resources) have the authority to shut down a dam or limit the pool level behind dams we find to be deficient," he said. "Many states do not grant that authority."
Galloway said that if a dam is found to be suspect, the Department of Water Resources will sanction the operation of the dam, though limiting the amount of water that can be stored until repairs or improvements are made. The department monitors the Fish Creek Dam through annual inspections and additional site visits. Most dams in Idaho are on a two-year inspection cycle.
On July 30, Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., introduced the Dam Rehabilitation Repair Act to direct $200 million to states to improve safety on publicly owned dams. Idaho spends $250,000 annually on dam safety, Galloway said. The bill would not affect the Fish Creek Dam because it is privately owned.