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1981-1982 The Politics of Water Development

SD May Make Water History (timeline image)

In 1981, officials in the Reagan White House and South Dakota Governor William Janklow hatched a plan involving the fates of the Oahe irrigation project and the WEB water project in an effort to help Republican Congressman Clint Roberts defeat Democrat Congressman Tom Daschle in their race for South Dakota’s consolidated U.S. House seat.


Reagan officials announced that Congressman Roberts had persuaded the administration to support WEB and resolution of the Oahe issue, but that Congressman Daschle first needed to convince House Democrats to support WEB funding.  The Republicans expected Daschle would fail, and Republicans would would then blame Daschle for WEB’s collapse in Washington.  This would help Roberts defeat Daschle. Not only did Daschle surprise political insiders by convincing the House of Representatives to support WEB, he later triumphed over Roberts.

As part of the ongoing and controversial Oahe settlement proposal, the Reagan administration supported WEB construction, but also supported “big irrigation” projects in South Dakota (Cendak and Garrison Extension). That support included requiring that several features of the struggling Oahe project –the pump house, Blunt dam and reservoir and the Pierre canal- be part of the new Cendak project.  The original idea of simply trading WEB for Oahe was no longer a consideration. If Oahe was to be permanently halted, monies to advance not only WEB, but Cendak, Garrision Extension, and several other projects, would be made available. After much debate United Family Farmers and the Oahe Sub-district board reluctantly agreed to a bill that allowed Cendak to use Oahe project features. In exchange for that concession, all other features of the Oahe project were officially discontinued, effectively ending any chance that the original Oahe project would ever be built.  The master contract between the federal government and the Oahe sub-district was also cancelled, and this was also a major victory for project opponents. On September 23, 1982 Congress passed the Oahe settlement bill, and President Ronald Reagan quickly signed the measure into law.  About one month later, John Sieh lost his Sub-district board re-election bid, and UFF lost their majority on that board, as well.  Oahe proponents had returned to power over the Sub-district after six years of control by UFF, but it was too late to change Oahe’s destiny. The tumultuous saga of the Oahe irrigation project was over.

Deauthorization pushed at high speed

Curt Hohn, John Sieh and other Oahe project opponents hoped to officially and permanently halt the Oahe project before the November, 1982 Sub-district board elections, so they relentlessly pushed the deauthorization process.  Sieh was involved in a competitive election race for his board seat, and so were other project opponents on the Sub-district board. Project opponents worried that if Oahe wasn’t halted before the Sub-district elections a ripe opportunity to end the project might be lost if project supporters triumphed in the elections.  Negotiations over deauthorization issues involving the Oahe Sub-district, South Dakota officials, and the state’s congressional delegation reached a fever pitch in spring and summer, 1982. This news story describes the Oahe Sub-district’s apprehensive agreement to drop the word “deauthorization” as part of the Oahe settlement legislation.   Deciding on the exact language in the so-called settlement bill was tricky, as water development interests insisted on salvaging features of the Oahe project, as well as creating other opportunities to build new water projects in South Dakota, and Oahe opponents wanted language included in the bill that halted the Oahe project with as much certainty as possible.

The end of Oahe

United Family Farmers and the Oahe Sub-district reluctantly agreed to critical concessions in order to achieve passage of the Oahe settlement legislation. From an historical perspective, this legislation officially ended the Oahe project dream that would have developed large-scale irrigation in the James River valley. That dream stretched back almost forty years to federal passage of the Flood Control Act and the Pick-Sloan Plan in 1944.  For much of that time most South Dakotans viewed the Oahe project favorably. United Family Farmers had accomplished something many perceived as being nearly impossible – they thwarted construction of the Oahe project despite the vigorous advocacy of every governor and nearly every major political official in South Dakota spanning four decades.

WEB groundbreaking

WEB’s high-profile and newsworthy groundbreaking was held only days before the 1982 general election, and the event became mired in special interest and partisan politics, as candidates and officials attempted to take credit for the milestone.  This distracted from the impressive, non-partisan grassroots work that had created WEB, and from the valuable service WEB would provide.  To move from concept to construction in eight years was a notable achievement for WEB’s devoted activists and supporters.

1982 Sub-district elections

Supporters of “big irrigation” finally recaptured control of the Oahe Sub-district board in the 1982 elections, including defeating their long-time nemesis John Sieh.  Sieh and United Family Farmers had dictated Sub-district policy since early 1977, and they had recently accomplished their primary goal: permanently halting the Oahe irrigation project. And so, despite their 6-5 advantage, the new pro-irrigation Sub-district board majority realized that although they controlled the Sub-district it was too late to resurrect the Oahe project. Nevertheless, the new majority was determined to promote other irrigation projects, including Cendak and Garrision Extension.

Oahe Sub-district is split

To facilitate development of the Cendak irrigation project Governor William Janklow and other irrigation supporters moved quickly to break up the Oahe Sub-district and create a new entity called the Cendak Conservancy Sub-district. The new sub-district would include what once had been the bottom half of the Oahe Sub-district, including all of Hughes, Hand and Hyde counties, and parts of Beadle, Spink and Faulk counties. The primary motivation for this political maneuver was to establish a supportive constituency for the Cendak irrigation project.