The Unforgettable Calamity – 40th Anniversary of the Teton Dam Failure

“As I sit here and watch I can see it caving in. It is just coming apart, completely coming apart… my advice to people downstream that are living along the Teton River, get your belongings, get your belongings. Don’t push your luck. Look, look, there goes the whole side, there goes whole complete side of the north edge of the Teton Dam and the water is monumental – holy – great – what can I say? People downstream better get out…”

From this transcript of a live broadcast aired on Rexburg Idaho’s KRXK radio station one is jolted back 40 years to June 5, 1976, when correspondent Don Ellis watched as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s nearly 75 year run of successful dam building crumbled before his very eyes. Years of panels, inquiries, investigations, and on-site excavations all worked to pinpoint the exact cause of the Teton Dam failure, to no definite end, but the hundreds of millions of dollars of property damage and 11 deaths attributed to the disaster remain undisputed. The story, from beginning to the tragic ending, can be found in the National Archives at Denver’s Record Group 115 Records of the Bureau of Reclamation holdings.

Construction of the dam had been authorized by Congress 12 years earlier on September 7, 1964. Planned on the Teton River, a tributary of Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in southeastern Idaho, the earth-filled embankment dam and reservoir were to be the main features of the Teton Basin Project, designed for flood control, power generation, and supplemental irrigation for nearby farmland in the upper Snake River Valley. The contract for construction was awarded December 13, 1971, and despite pending environmental lawsuits (which were eventually dismissed) work commenced in February of the following year.

All phases of the dam specifications were scheduled to be completed in May 1977 but by October 1975 the embankment was essentially finished. Workers then began the slow process of filling the reservoir.

Bureau of Reclamation memoranda book compiling the Teton Dam Reservoir level and capacity, the last entry being the day of the failure (NAID 2199668)

In the early morning of June 5, 1976, workers discovered two leaks in quick succession within the wall of rock that served as the dam abutment on the right side. Noted as no cause for concern, it wasn’t until a wet spot on the dam wall itself was discovered around 9:00 a.m. that serious alarms were raised. Quickly turning into a mud stream, by 10:30 a.m. it was flowing to the point that witnesses reported the leak sounding like a waterfall. Jerry Dursteller, an employee of the Gibbons and Reed Company which had been contracted to build the dam’s feeder pipeline and pump canal, arrived on scene at 10:00 a.m. and immediately began taking photographs. His collection of images, seen in whole within our collection, show the worsening of the leak.

Dursteller ran out of film at 11:50 a.m. and his last picture shows the gaping hole reaching the crest of the dam. On the reservoir side witnesses reported a small two foot diameter whirlpool had grown quickly to 20 feet in diameter, indicating an increasing volume of water leaking through the dam. A warning from project officials to local sheriff’s offices was soon elevated from ‘Prepare for Flooding’ to ‘Evacuate Everyone Downstream’ as there was nothing left to do, the dam was going to fail. At 11:57 over 250,000 acre feet of reservoir water, equivalent to 81.5 billion gallons, broke through the Teton Dam and rushed downstream.

Keep reading at: The Unforgettable Calamity – 40th Anniversary of the Teton Dam Failure | The Text Message

The Secretary of the Interior on Wednesday decided against releasing water down the Trinity River to ensure the survival of the salmon runs expected this month.  The virtual trickle of water is low, too warm, and clogged with moss, while corporate farms in California’s Central Valley are receiving the government subsidized water.  The people of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and Yurok Tribe on the Trinity-Klamath Rivers are very worried that they will face another massive fish kill, as happened in 2002 under the same conditions.

Ephrata, WA. Home of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Columbia Basin Project office where the irrigation efforts made possible through the Grand Coulee Dam were orchestrated. This was not a planned stop but my mom and I had breakfast down the street and I couldn’t resist getting a picture with the sign.

“Saloons and disreputable places of Hazen [Nev.] June 24, 1905. By Lubken

From the series:  Photographs of Irrigation Projects, 1896 - 1938Records of the Bureau of Reclamation, 1889 - 2008.

From 1903 to 1917, Walter J. Lubken (1881-1960) was an official photographer for the U.S. Reclamation Service (USRS), now the the Bureau of Reclamation (on Tumblr at usbr​). During these years, Lubken took thousands of photographs documenting the Reclamation Service’s irrigation projects across the American West. He recorded the progress of construction projects as well as USRS machinery and personnel. The agency also asked Lubken to photograph nearby towns and farms for a series of articles designed to promote settlement on land reclaimed from the desert through irrigation.

via Picturing the Century : Portfolio: Walter Lubken


“May all your acquisition needs be met!” It’s the bureaucratic equivalent of “May the Force be with you!” 

This booklet is a very neat and easy to read guide on the acquisition process for government agencies. It also gives out some very sound advice on the do’s and don’ts of acquisition (”they are based largely on common sense”) such as “…don’t buy a gold-plated pencil when a wooden one will do.”

United States. Department of the Interior. (1988). How to survive the acquisition process in the Bureau of Reclamation. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Full text available via Hathitrust.

Martin’s Falls at the Devil’s Punch Bowl. Upper Grand Coulee Water flowing at this period comes from melting snow, the falls being dry throughout most of the year.”, 2/23/1936

Series: Photograph albums, 1903 - 1972Record Group 115: Records of the Bureau of Reclamation, 1889 - 2008

From the Scope & Content note:  Photograph from Volume Two of a series of photo albums documenting the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam and related work on the Columbia Basin Project.

(You can also follow the Bureau of Reclamation on Tumblr at @usbr!)

Drought Sends U.S. Water Agency Back to Drawing Board
The Bureau of Reclamation, which runs a vast network of dams, reservoirs and aqueducts across the West, is taking a hard look at its infrastructure.
By Coral Davenport


For most of the 1900s, the bureau’s system — which grew into the largest wholesale water utility in the country — worked. But the West of the 21st century is not the West of Roosevelt. There are now millions more people who want water, but there is far less of it. The science of climate change shows that in the future, there will be less still.

“We have to think differently,” said Michael Connor, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s not enough just to conserve water. We need to rethink these projects. We have a lot of infrastructure, but a lot of it doesn’t work very well anymore. We need to undertake what amounts to a giant replumbing project across the West.”

Mr. Connor said that in the future, the nation’s water agency would have to put climate change at the center of its mission.

CCC Camp BR-79 Kendrick Project: “Kitchen of Company No. 2136. S. K. Wagner, photographer.”, 01/29/1940

From the series: Civilian Conservation Corps Photographs and Related Correspondence, 1939 - 1941. Records of the Bureau of Reclamation, 1889 - 2008

More background on the Kendrick Project via the Bureau of Reclamation (They’re also on Tumblr at usbr)

Lake Mead About to Hit a Critical New Low as 15-Year Drought Continues in Southwest
Lake Mead is about to reach 1,075 feet in elevation, which will trigger the first mandatory water cuts in history. Drought, climate change and poor water management have contributed to the situation.


The reservoir is only days away from hitting 1,075 feet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s projections. That number is the threshold set in a 2007 agreement as part of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Colorado River Interim Guidelines, which calls for delivery cuts if water levels in Lake Mead drops below that level.

These cuts will be the first set of mandatory water delivery curtailments to Lake Mead. Should the water levels continue to drop, as they are expected to—due to the prolonged drought, climate change and poor water management—more cuts will be required.

The Bureau of Reclamation predicts the first round of cuts could take place in January 2017 with Arizona and Southern Nevada seeing the biggest cuts. Arizona plans to curtail “groundwater recharge efforts” and cut “deliveries to farmers with low-priority rights,” according to the Las Vegas Sun. Arizona’s cities “would be unaffected, at least initially.” Southern Nevada, for its part, “has prepared with conservation, saving enough water that residents and businesses won’t be affected if a portion no longer is available.”

The following graphic is from The Bathtub Ring Project (and here’s the link):

This photo of a Roadrunner was taken at Davis Cove backwater (Lake Mohave). “We have trail cameras in place to capture bird predation on razorbacks and bonytail,” said Biological Science Technician Jeff Anderson, Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program - Fisheries Lab. “But this isn’t the species of bird we had in mind.” The automatic camera took the photo in early November 2014. For more information on the LCMSCP visit: http://www.lcrmscp.gov/


“I came, I saw, and I was conquered…”

President Franklin Roosevelt at the Dedication of the Boulder Dam, September 30, 1935.

With initial site work beginning in June of 1930, construction of the Boulder dam was nearly complete by the time of the 1935 Dedication Ceremonies. Originally named the Hoover Dam, in honor of President Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, numerous attempts were made to rename it the Boulder Dam, but this was never fully successful and in time it reverted to the original, better known name.

This Department of Interior film above captures Boulder Dam in the midst of its construction. See how the Colorado River flowed before, and after, the construction of what was then the world’s tallest dam.

Series: Motion Picture Film Documentation of the Diverse Activities of the Department of the Interior, 1916 - 1976
Record Group 48: Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior, 1826 - 2009

President Roosevelt can be seen at the Dedication Ceremony in the footage above at roughly 30:28.  Or read his remarks below (additional pages in the National Archives Catalog):

Dedication Ceremonies-Boulder Dam, 9/30/1935
File Unit: First Carbon Files, 1933 - 1945Series: Speeches of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933 - 1945Collection: Papers as President, President’s Personal File, 1933 - 1945

More facts on the Hoover Dam from the Bureau of Reclamation (usbr).