Resilience: The Teton Dam Disaster of 1976

Robert Clayton, Geology, Brigham Young University-Idaho


On June 5, 1976, the 300-foot tall earthen Teton Dam in eastern Idaho failed, destroying several communities. The response and recovery of the close-knit communities is unparalleled in American history. Over the succeeding months, tens of thousands of volunteers from the surrounding region came by busloads to do the hard work of helping individuals put their homes, businesses, and lives back in order. The response was both massive and effective because of 1) the farming character of the area, and 2) predominance of one church in the region (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), its tight organization, and its emphasis on self-reliance and volunteerism.

Individuals with expertise/responsibilities in the following areas have helped create the case study:
The dam was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which paid the majority of recovery costs (largely irrigation systems, roads, and railroads). Our university, then called Ricks College, served as the refuge and relief center for months after the flood.

Key teaching points:
  1. Causes of dam failure -- site on fractured pyroclastic rocks, use of local soils (loess) instead of clay for the dam's core, and bureaucratic intertia that ignored several red-flags.
  2. The nature of flash-flood damage -- fast-moving water picks up a lot of debris that increases damage.
  3. The resilience of a close-knit community -- strong church organization and a strong regional culture of volunteerism helped communities recover rapidly.

How this example is used in the classroom:
We visit the dam and affected areas on the field trip. In addition, we share first-hand accounts that were collected by Ricks College. See the Natural Disasters course description and the Field Trip activity.


References on failure of the Teton Dam are abundant. We point students to the many good references available at *.gov and *.edu sites and videos on YouTube.

Supporting Files