BOISE, Idaho — When the newly built Teton Dam failed spectacularly in 1976, Dale Swensen was spared the worst: Only the basement of the then-26-year-old farmer's rental home was flooded when billions of gallons of water came crashing down the canyon. The deluge around him killed 11 people and thousands of livestock.

Despite the calamity, Swensen, now director of the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District, has become a big advocate of rebuilding what's is recorded as one of America's greatest engineering failures.

Just two years ago, he promoted an $800,000 study — paid for by Idaho and the federal Bureau of Reclamation — to examine new water storage sites above the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, including a new Teton Dam.

Today, however, Swensen believes the dam idea is doomed.

"I'd love to have Teton Dam rebuilt. There would be numerous benefits from that project," Swensen told The Associated Press. "But boy, you've got to be able to afford it. And I just don't think we can."

Idaho has myriad reasons for wanting to boost its water supply: To produce more electricity, guarantee that industry in cities can grow and that farmers can irrigate, and to help its endangered salmon spawn, swim to the Pacific Ocean and return.

Last week, federal officials presented findings from the 2009 study to the Idaho Water Resource Board, the eight-member panel that governs state water policy, about what they've concluded, so far.

Bureau of Reclamation managers say the Teton Dam, now projected to cost some $550 million, is still part of the conversation, but mostly as a benchmark for other, potentially cheaper storage alternatives.

"I would say, it (the Teton Dam) is not coming up as a high priority," said Robert Schattin, the Bureau of Reclamation official helping lead the Henry's Fork Basin Study.

Instead, the focus over the next five months will on be seven smaller water storage proposals, including raising the Ashton Dam and Island Park Reservoir, as well as adding smaller dams to tributaries of the Teton River. Those projects that survive scrutiny may move forward to a more-detailed engineering analysis.

And more than just water storage is on the table.

Schattin and others will examine how canal expansion, conservation, schemes to move water to where it's most needed, and expanded recharge of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer beneath southern and eastern Idaho can play a bigger role in preserving the state's most precious resource. The Lake Erie-size aquifer, depleted by overuse and changing agricultural practices since the 1950s, is critical to Idaho's economic future, with $10 billion in goods and services generated by the region it flows beneath.

Shattin expects any proposals from the Henry's Fork Basin study this December will include a combination of storage, conservation, recharge and market-based incentives. Managing Idaho's water resources "really needs to be in a broader package," he said. "It's not just storage."

For their part, Idaho officials say it's premature to abandon discussion of the Teton Dam, or any other storage project.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has been a vocal fan of storage projects since his 2006 election.

And just last week, the Water Resource Board approved spending $2 million to study a dam proposal on the Weiser River, which runs more than 100 miles from the Payette National Forest in Adams County to the Snake River in western Idaho.

Brian Patton, the Idaho Department of Water Resources planning bureau chief, said building a dam is a decades-long endeavor, one that will outlast recession-driven budgets that have defined Idaho's priorities since 2008. That, coupled with multi-year droughts of the future, could provide new impetus for big construction projects like those of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

"Even looking at some of the reservoirs that were built in the 1970s, the planning for those started in the '30s and '40s," Patton said. "So there's a lot of time in there for priorities to shift and for budgets to turn around. The upshot is, it's way too early to tell if the state should back away from or jump in and build new storage."

Environmentalists at American Rivers and Trout Unlimited were alarmed when proponents of the 2009 study left the Teton Dam's resurrection in the mix.

They're pleased that conservation is part of discussion, but suspect that state and federal managers favor storage projects over other, less-ambitious measures, said Kim Trotter, Trout Unlimited's Idaho Water Project director in Driggs.

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For example, among the seven storage projects the Bureau of Reclamation will scrutinize through December is a man-made lake a mile above sea level in Fremont County that would be filled with water from a creek that's prime spawning ground for Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Tapping the creek could push a fish already dubbed a "species of special concern" closer to Endangered Species Act protection, Trotter said.

"This is now less about rebuilding the exact same Teton Dam, and more about building some other storage facility that would have the same deleterious effect," she said, adding measures like modernizing irrigation systems could save enough water to make new storage unnecessary. "And it would be a fraction of the cost," she said.

Studies like the Bureau of Reclamation's may spur debate over storage, said irrigation district manager Swensen, but projected costs stretching into the hundreds of millions, coupled with inevitable opposition from environmentalists, make a new era of Idaho dam building unlikely.

"I guess you have to be a realist, and I think that's what the realities are," Swensen said. "My personal opinion is, when the alternatives all get hashed out and studied, putting water into the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer is going to be the cheapest alternative."

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