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1975 Supporters Fight Back

Kneip (Timeline image)

In late 1974, at the suggestion of Senator George McGovern, business promoters, construction contractors, heavy equippment interests, bankers and farmers created "Friends of Oahe" as a public organization to counter United Family Farmers.  During 1975, Friends of Oahe and other Oahe supporters agressively battled UFF by funding promotional advertisements, opposing UFF-backed measures in the South Dakota legislature, and promoting Oahe in Washington, DC.  Oahe supporters finally understood they needed an organization other than the Bureau of Reclamation and the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district to defend Oahe, and the political dispute over Oahe quickly escalated into a bitter struggle that was especially contentious in the Oahe sub-district area, but it was felt throughout the entire state.


The South Dakota legislature became an Oahe battleground, with United Family Farmers lobbying for several anti-project bills, but Friends of Oahe blocked every UFF-backed measure.  South Dakota Governor Kneip traveled to Washington and testified before Congress, claiming Oahe would transform the James River valley into “an abundant garden”.  UFF retaliated, renting a large plane and flying 200 UFF members to Washington to lobby against construction appropriations.  Kneip, Holum , McGovern and others successfully convinced Congress to invest more money into Oahe,  and the Bureau of Reclamation received $7.25 million for 1976 project construction. Oahe supporters in South Dakota were ecstatic. They had thwarted the upstart farmer populists. The largest project in the history of South Dakota was moving ahead, and the future looked bright. No federal irrigation project in the long history of the Bureau of Reclamation had ever been stopped once construction had commenced.

Senator George McGovern

Senator George McGovern became the most visible and vigorous champion for the Oahe project among elected officials in Washington DC. He and his staff provided political advice to Oahe supporters in South Dakota, and helped the Bureau of Reclamation proceed through authorization and funding phases of the project. It was Senator McGovern who recommended formation of the group, Friends of Oahe, as a means to counter the political activities and successes of United Family Farmers. McGovern traced his support for the Oahe irrigation project to the hardships he witnessed during the dust bowl era.

Big Plumbing

United Family Farmers’ legal efforts to block construction of the Oahe pumping plant failed, and construction of the massive facility roared ahead. The pump house structure would measure 70 feet by 219 feet, with a 58.5 foot height. Inside, four 9,000 horsepower motors and pumps would be housed. Each giant pump could convey 2,250 gallons of water-per-second to the top of nearby river bluffs and into the head works of the proposed Pierre Canal. Total water proposed to be pumped through the facility: 147 billion gallons each year. 94% would be used for irrigation.

McGovern rejects Oahe referendum

Senator McGovern opposed UFF's desire for a public vote on the project.

Kneip: 'Quit Oahe and lose millions'

South Dakota Governor Richard Kneip regularly cited the economic impacts of the Oahe irrigation project as a primary reason why the project should be buit.

UFF leader has land condemned

Rancher Roy Runge, owner of the land where United Family Farmers hosted its successful Medicine Knoll rally in 1974, had part of his Medicine Knoll Ranch condemned by the Bureau of Reclamation so the agency could build a deep stretch of the Pierre Canal. Runge, who resisted federal government efforts to acquire his land, was an admired and trusted figure among project opponents and in his area.  His plight –he claimed the Bureau of Reclamation dramatically undervalued his land- angered farmers and ranchers and generated high levels of antipathy against the federal government and the Oahe project.

Progress on pump plant

Oahe supporters cheered progress on the Oahe pumping plant, an essential feature of the irrigation project.