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1959 Support for Oahe Irrigation

Gov. Ralp Herseth (Timeline image)

Governor Ralph Herseth, a Brown County farmer, helped lead the effort to pass a law allowing for the creation of water development (conservancy) districts in South Dakota.  The primary goal was to establish a conservancy district to assist development of an irrigation project in the James River valley using Oahe reservoir water.


South Dakota's irrigation promoters celebrated the new law allowing for water district creation, and they prepared for a public vote to create the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district.  The new sub-district would encompass 15½ counties in the northeastern part of the state, including the cities of Aberdeen, Pierre and Huron. The entire Oahe irrigation project would be built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation within the boundaries of the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district.

Conservancy District

Water development advocates promoted the creation of a conservancy district in South Dakota to move the Oahe project forward.

Opposition to irrigation

Opposition to the creation of conservancy districts and to the Oahe irrigation project was not widespread, but it did exist.  As early as 1952 farmers in the James River valley between Huron and Mitchell aggressively protested inclusion in the Oahe irrigation plan, and their protests persuaded Oahe promoters to exclude that area from the project plan.  Opposition leader Frank Ferguson, a state legislator and farmer from Sanborn County, fought Oahe irrigation for many years, as evidenced in this 1958 news article that describes his opposition to the creation of conservancy districts.
Opposition to irrigation also existed in the Brown and Spink county areas, with a concentration of anti-irrigation activists living east of the James River in Brown County. That opposition would prompt the Bureau of Reclamation to eventually recommend that irrigation proposals for that area –east of the James River in Brown County- be suspended until areas where more support existed were developed and served with irrigation water.

Irrigation excitement spreads

Most South Dakotans were excited about the prospect of a large irrigation project –Oahe- constructed to serve northeastern South Dakota.  This 1959 Huron Daily Plainsman article enthusiastically described Oahe’s potential economic and other impacts, including a “tripling of population” in the James River valley, thousands of new farm families, new sugar beet and potato industries, and over $1 billion worth of economic benefits.  These glowing forecasts were not fact-checked or scrutinized, but they inspired enthusiastic support for the Oahe irrigation project that would continue for many years.