If a recent poll is any indication, southeast Idaho residents oppose rebuilding the controversial Teton Dam—as long as there is another, less expensive alternative.
According to a poll commissioned by American Rivers, a national conservation organization, regional residents voted 63 percent in favor of using existing supplies more efficiently rather than rebuilding the dam.
American Rivers spokesman Scott Bosse said he was pleasantly surprised by the results.
"It's very clear that Idahoans passionately care about their rivers," Bosse said.
However, he attributes the poll results primarily to people's caring about their wallets in a time of economic crisis. The cost to rebuild the dam is estimated at $500 million to $1 billion of state funds, which would further widen the state's $340 million budget gap.
"It's pretty obvious Idahoans don't want to spend money they don't have on projects they don't need," Bosse said. "While building dams is deeply welded into the culture, in this economic climate it's not an idea a lot of people embrace."
Lesa Stark, a program manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said cost is certainly a factor.
"Everybody's on board for wanting the cheapest approach," she said. "Building a dam is not a cheap alternative."
Teton Dam collapsed in 1976 shortly after the reservoir behind it was filled for the first time. The dam was unable to support the water weight and failed, flooding the region and killing 11 people.
The Bureau of Reclamation and the state are six months into a two-year study to evaluate options for increasing water storage in the Henry's Fork Basin. While building the dam is a possibility, Stark said, the bureau is looking at a number of alternatives.
"We're basically in the brainstorming phase," she said.
When not given an alternative, 45 percent of residents said they would support the dam's reconstruction, despite what the poll calls its "catastrophic" failure in 1976.
Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said they would like to see a balance struck between protecting rivers and harnessing them for economic growth, while 56 percent favored increasing the capacity of existing dams rather than rebuilding the Teton Dam.
The poll surveyed 300 people who were selected randomly via phone, and conducted by Moore Information. This pollster's clients include Gov. Butch Otter and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
Alternatives to the dam could include voluntary non-irrigation in drought years and disincentives for wasting water, Bosse said.
Bosse said the results would be shared with the Bureau of Reclamation.
"Public opinion is more important than any other factor," he said. "If the people don't want a dam, we shouldn't build a dam."
Stark said that while the bureau listens to conservation groups, more scientific factors come into play when it makes decisions.
"Polls are polls, and we're trying to stick with facts," she said.
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org