1981-1982 The Politics of Water Development
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.