Engineering is an important part of human existence. It may not be obvious at first but once the term engineering is defined as the manipulation of the natural environment through scientific means, its value is made more evident. Even in pre-historic times, ancient peoples rely on engineering feats to solve their problems. But in the modern world engineering has become an indispensable tool for human survival.
The importance of engineering is linked to technology and innovation. Most of the time, innovation and technology is a positive development in the lives of people. But in certain occasions the inappropriate use of innovation and technology has brought more harm than good.
In cases of man-made disasters, scientists, investigators and various stakeholders attempt to understand the engineering aspect of the application of the said technology. In this particular study the Teton Dam disaster is the object of inquiry.
Before going any further it is important to reiterate that engineering innovation is a key to sustainable growth. Engineering innovation can be the main difference between the survival or the demise of a firm. Organizations that did not invest in the research, development and use of engineering innovation may find themselves in the brink of obsolescence or bankruptcy.
Some of the more important companies in the last fifty years understood the importance of engineering innovation. There must be a continuous move forward when it comes to engineering innovation because according to experts in this field, it has become a survival imperative (Christensen, 2001).
The same thing can be said about national governments and local communities. It is critically important for a city, state, and nation to look ahead and prepare for the inevitable. But more often than not, engineering innovation is the by-product of a need to solve a particular problem. In the case of the State of Idaho and the town of Rexburg, engineering innovation was needed to deal with the growing needs of an expanding township.
In the latter part of the 19th century, settlers began to pour into the area near Idaho falls because of the discovery of gold (McDonald, 2006, p.9). One of the locations chosen to build a town to support the gold prospecting activities in the said region is Rexburg. For many decades the local residents contributed to the success of the area and agriculture became the region’s lifeblood (McDonald, 2006, p.9).
It did not take long before the region became known for the abundant harvest of wheat, sugar beets, and potatoes (McDonald, 2006, p.9). But with the success of the settlement also comes the inevitable problems related to sustainability. Thus, there came a time when the need for a dam was deemed a necessity.
In 1964 the U.S. Congress approved the construction of the Teton Dam on the Teton River located in the southeast portion of Idaho (Williamson, 1997, p. 31). The purpose of the dam was for the benefit of the residents living in the area.
The goal was to complete an engineering feat that would help control the chronic flooding as well as to provide irrigation and recreational facilities for the people living in the area. The construction of the said dam was started in 1972. But the necessary preparation was made years before the first construction material was brought to the site.
When the dam was completed the people marveled at the fact that the structure was 305 feet high and the base was almost 1,700 feet thick (Williamson, 1997). After the completion of the project the homeowners and farmers placed their trust on the Teton Dam and as a result many of them cancelled their flood insurance (Williamson, 1997, p. 311).
They were confident that the presence of the dam has eliminated the possibility of further flooding. But they were mistaken. A competent engineer should have been contracted by the residents to determine if the Teton Dam was impervious to leaks and other structural problems that could bring about the destruction of dam. They needed to find out if the dam can protect life and property.
The dam was designed to hold significant amounts of water. It would require massive and impervious structure to contain the potential energy contained in the daily impounding of free-flowing water from the Teton River.
Seepage, cracks and other minor imperfections must be corrected because these insignificant failures can be multiplied after the passage of time. In the case of the Teton Dam, the engineers and workers were unable to fix the problems in time. The cracks became unmanageable until it resulted in the total destruction of the said dam.
There are three main reasons why the dam failed. First, there was an urgent need to build a dam for the sake of the community that lives nearby. It can be argued that the urgency forced many to shortcut the process. In other words engineers, surveyors, politicians and other stakeholders were pressed for time to complete the dam.
The second major reason is the failure of the government agency and the surveying team to properly acknowledge the importance of the geological features of the Teton River. Subsequent investigations would reveal that the dam was constructed in an area composed mostly of volcanic rocks such as rhyolite.
It is a type of rock that is lightweight and easily fractured (Ellingwood & Kanda, 2005). The third major reason is the absence of an independent consultant that can provide an unbiased assessment of the site and the overall design of the dam.
In June of 1976 the reservoir was nearly full and it should have been a cause for alarm but all the stakeholders were confident that the dam was built to withstand that kind of pressure. But a week later on June 5, 1976 a worker spotted two cracks in the dam and this was followed by another large leak two hours later (Williamson, 1997, p. 312).
Water seepage was already observed in the days prior but engineers knew that water seepage is a usual occurrence in dams (McDonald, 2006, p. 30). However, there should have been a system in place that could have accurately interpreted the implications of a 40 gallons per minute of water seepage.
The absence of monitoring capabilities and risk assessment in the case of a water seepage was a serious weakness in the overall design of the said facility.
It was a Saturday morning and therefore many residents were outside their homes as they try to enjoy the weekend. While many were enjoying the water downstream, dam authorities were trying to use bulldozers to push earth into the widening gaps of the Teton Dam. But when the workers realized the futility of their actions they left their bulldozers as strong currents began to wash away the heavy machineries.
The officials of Teton Dam initiated an evacuation that was considered unnecessary in the previous months. As a result they only had less than an hour to warn the residents of Wilford and Sugar City, the communities that were directly in the path of the rampaging floods (Williamson, 1997, p. 312). Eleven people died and the houses of residents were devastated.
The disaster that occurred at Teton Dam is a man-made disaster. There can be many factors such as the destruction of the environment and human errors. But the root cause is a fundamental problem when it comes to engineering.
It is therefore important to take a closer look at how engineering is perceived by people and engineers themselves. It is therefore surprising to find out that there is no agreement when it comes to its definition.
According to one view, engineering has something to do with design (Poel, Goldberg, & Davis, 2010). This idea makes sense because nothing can function properly without an appropriate design.
For instance, a sports car can only achieve extraordinary speeds not only because it has a big engine but because of the other design considerations. It is important to consider design factors such as weight of the engine, its structural design that enable it to burn fuel at the most cost-efficient rate and of course the overall design of the car that enables it to deal with the effects of drag.
Another insightful definition is given by another group who asserted that engineering is “the transformation of the natural world, using scientific principles and mathematics, in order to achieve some desired practical end” (Poel, Goldberg, & Davis, 2010, p.3). This definition fits well with the current analysis of the Teton Dam disaster.
In the case of the Teton Dam engineering requirements should not be limited with the design of the dam but also the need to determine if the construction site is suitable for the design of the project. A well-conceived design is useless if the geological features of the river is seen as inappropriate and therefore making it a risky proposition to build a dam.
A good way to understand a perfect strategy to construct a dam is to study successful projects in order to compare their methods with those of the experts. In the case of dam construction one of the standards in preparation, design and construction is the Hoover Dam. An overview of the construction process will reveal that the engineers working on this project did not leave anything to chance.
Their preparation includes site studies to know more about the lay of the land as well as to determine the logistical requirements of moving men and materials to the site (Wolf 6). In other words the engineers conceived the project from beginning to end.
Going back to the discussion on engineering innovation it is important to realize that the work of the engineers must not end with the creation of a solution to a particular problem. In this case the construction of the Teton Dam was the answer to chronic flooding and the need for irrigation reserve.
But the job of the engineers must not end right after the turnover of the project to the local officials and the residents. Engineering innovation must be constant feature of their work. In this case engineering innovation is needed to sustain the project, specifically to develop strategies to ensure that it will not rendered useless through human error and natural calamities.
It is easy to understand why the engineers did not think beyond the construction phase of the project. It requires a motivated team and motivated leader to push through with any type of project that would lead to innovation (Tidd & Bessant, 2009, p.100). At the same time the engineers working at Teton Dam must have the support of a group of investors and policy makers that would encourage them to pursue their goals.
The Teton Dam disaster is a man-made disaster that could have been prevented if appropriate engineering procedures were observed. There was not enough preparation made in order to ensure the viability of the project.
The stakeholders wanted to construct a dam on the Teton River because they believed that it was beneficial for all that were involved in the endeavor. It can be argued that the project was approved without consulting the opinion of a third party consultant. An unbiased assessment of the site would reveal that the geological features of the area could not handle the weight created by super-sized structure like the Teton Dam.
Furthermore, it must be pointed out that engineers must not only come up with appropriate designs, they must also consider the possibility of failure. Human error must never be discounted and therefore, engineers, in collaboration of the other stakeholders should have developed an emergency disaster response.
At the same time engineers should have created a monitoring capability that can provide feedback with regards to water seepage and the existence of cracks. This monitoring system should be able to determine the acceptable threshold before a dam would break.
Christensen, C. et al. (2001). Harvard Business Review on Innovation. MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Ellingwood, B., & Kanda, J. (2005). Structural safety and its quality assurance. VA: American Society of Civil Engineers.
McDonald, D. (2006). The Teton Dam disaster. CA: Arcadia Publishing.
Poel, I., Goldberg, D., & Davis, M. (2010). Philosophy and engineering: an emerging agenda. New York: Springer.
Tidd, J. & J. Bessant. (2009). Managing Innovation, Integrating Technological, Market & Organizational. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
Williamson, D. (1997). River tales of Idaho. ID: Caxton Printers.
Wolf, D. (1996). Big Dams and Other Dreams: The Six Companies Story. OK: University ofOklahoma Press.