On May 23, students in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, often referred to as ASME, visited the Teton Dam to learn more about the dam’s foundation and the engineering behind it.

While Teton Dam is one of the few dams that have failed, it’s failure led to significant advancements in dam safety and engineering. Located in Newdale, Idaho, the dam is now a scenic lookout for incoming tourists and locals curious about what could have been.

Students in ASME learned about the immense responsibility associated with working as an engineer in dam production.

Bryan Lewis describes how the dam should never have been built.

Bryan Lewis describes how the dam should never have been built. Photo credit: Dakotah Barclay

“This site should have never been used,” said Bryan Lewis, a BYU-Idaho mechanical engineering professor. “The formations are wrong, the geology is wrong, the permeability of the riverbed itself is wrong.”

The dam was built within a seismic zone, an area more susceptible to earthquakes. It was completed in 1976 and shortly after showed signs of weakness in its foundation. Within months, it burst, killing 11 people and thousands of animals and livestock.

Despite its failure, the dam was set to provide many cost-saving objectives, according to Lewis. This included utilizing hydropower, creating a large lake for recreation purposes and providing irrigation to the crops.

Teton Dam as seen from a distance

Teton Dam as seen from a distance. Photo credit: Chester Chan

“Rexburg would have had the potential to be as big, or bigger than Idaho Falls if the dam was still active today,” said Matthew Archibald, the student president of ASME.

Lewis took the opportunity to explain how an engineer can learn from the mistakes of failed projects. Questions to ask include: What did we not do that we should have done? What did we overlook? What should we change in our processes so that does not happen again in the future?

Archibald shared the importance of logging all of the steps in a project to protect one’s self if future errors occur.

Lewis shared that the dam burst in the afternoon, which turned out to be for the best. If it had been in the middle of the night, more people may have been harmed, but the afternoon allowed them more time to escape.