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1948 Oahe Dam Advances

Oahe dam groundbreaking

Congress approved money to build Oahe dam, and construction began soon after. There was determined but unsuccessful opposition to the dam by those whose lands would be permanently flooded by Oahe reservoir.

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There were no local hearings or reports detailing the impacts of a huge reservoir holding water behind Oahe dam. The development of Oahe and other dams on the Missouri preceded the vigilance and activism that would later characterize efforts to protect rivers and riparian ecosystems, as well as protect people from the intrusion and damage caused by dams and reservoirs.  Opposition to Oahe dam was actually more intense than popular history has reported. Missouri valley ranchers and farmers protested because highly productive and ecologically diverse lands would be destroyed by Oahe reservoir. Native American communities and reservations were inundated and destroyed by impounded flows. It was clearly documeted that the U.S Army Corps of Engineers trampled on the rights of Native Americans to gain the land it needed to develop Oahe reservoir.  Opposition to Oahe dam and reservoir also came from farmers in the James River valley, where irrigation using Oahe reservoir water would occur. Some farmers there –especially in eastern Brown County and in Sanborn County- didn't want irrigation. They claimed that dryland farming was profitable and irrigation was unnecessary. But South Dakota leaders and the Bureau of Reclamation reinforced the notion that the irrigation project would not only be good for the economy and agriculture, but it would also serve as compensation to South Dakota for lands lost to the four Missouri River mainstem dams and reservoirs developed in the state.  The Bureau of Reclamation claimed it would develop a million acres of new irrigation in South Dakota to replace the bottomlands lost beneath the Missouri’s mainstem reservoirs, and the state’s business and political leadership became enthusiastic champions of Oahe dam and the Oahe irrigation project.

Oahe Dam Groundbreaking

The mood was festive at the Oahe dam groundbreaking ceremony, held September 16, 1948.  Dignitaries included, left to right, former South Dakota Governor George Mickelson; General Lewis Pick of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; U.S. Senator Karl Mundt; and Robert Hipple, Publisher of the Pierre (SD) Daily Capital Journal.  General Pick had earlier described his efforts to control the Missouri River as similar to a campaign of war, with the river as his enemy.  He said the Oahe dam groundbreaking was the happiest day of his life.