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1983-1985 Last gasp for "Big Irrigation"

1983 (timeline image)

In the aftermath of Oahe's demise, South Dakotans who believed the federal government owed their state a large irrigation project as compensation for lands lost beneath Missouri River reservoirs promoted the Cendak and Garrison Extension irrigation project concepts as reasonable and plausible.

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Skeptics of this approach –that building large irrigation projects in eastern South Dakota woudl serve as compensation for lands permanently flooded by mainstem reservoirs on the Missouri- pointed to historical analysis indicating that large-scale, federally funded irrigation projects had never succeeded in areas where farming was already successful. That was the situation in eastern South Dakota, where Oahe would have served an existing farming region. During the protracted settlement negotiations for the Oahe project John Sieh calmed United Family Farmer members worried about possible construction of Cendak and Garrison Extension projects by explaining that each was poorly conceived and would never be built. Sieh had been right. Lacking scientific and economic justifications Cendak was eventually mothballed. The same fate came to Garrison Extension, a quarter-billion dollar water delivery and irrigation project using polluted return flows from the yet-unbuilt Garrision project, a North Dakota irrigation project. Garrison Extension would have necessitated channelization of the James River, and progressive lawmakers in South Dakota and Washington rigidly opposed that idea.

The notion of developing a major irrigation project in eastern South Dakota faded as big project supporters began to understand the long-term liabilities and political challenges of such pursuits.  The Bureau of Reclamation had, over the course of 80 years, developed dozens of large irrigation projects across the West, but the agency had simply run out of places to build such projects. It was not illogical that the agency tried to expand its reclamation domain into eastern South Dakota, but the factors that blocked this from happening coincided with the rising influence of ecological issues and the environmental movement, and an emerging and widespread suspicion about the competence and motivations of federal development agencies, some of which can be traced to Watergate and governmental conduct during the Vietnam War. As it turned out, economic and environmental conditions associated with both the Oahe and Cendak irrigation project blueprints were likely better served by not building either project.

Completed Oahe project feature

The federal government had spent more than $50 million on the Oahe irrigation project when it suspended work on the project. Salvaging features of the Oahe project already completed or underway proved appealing for irrigation promoters seeking a new opportunity. They proposed using Oahe features –pump house, Pierre canal, and Blunt Dam and reservoir- in conjunction with the proposed Cendak project.  The building shown in this photo would have housed the Oahe irrigation project pumps had the project been developed.  It was completed in 1979, and although it looks small next to the cylindrical surge tank components of the Oahe dam powerhouse, it is actually 70 feet wide and 220 feet long, with an internal ceiling height of nearly 60 feet.  Note the pickup truck parked alongside and dwarfed by the building.  Costing about $10 million, the pump house would have contained four 9,000 horsepower pumps to suck water from the dam’s penstock and propel it –using power generated by Oahe dam- up a nearby bluff and into the headworks of the Pierre Canal. All four pumps are now stored in the pump house. Otherwise, the pump house is unused, nonfunctional, and quiet as a tomb.

Janklow dumps the sub-districts

The long and bitter battle over the Oahe project had frustrated Governor William Janklow. The governor was also frustrated by South Dakota’s conservancy sub-district arrangement. The Oahe Sub-district, for example, was founded on the basis of providing local and rural control over water development issues, including the Oahe irrigation project, and this created a political environment more easily exploited by activists opposing the type of large water development projects commonly supported by powerful commercial interests, including South Dakota’s financial institutions, the construction industry and the industrial agricultural sector. This is precisely what United Family Farmers had accomplished. Governor Janklow hoped to create a regional governmental structure that would aggressively promote rather than impede development.  The demise of the Oahe project opened this opportunity, and Governor Janklow first split up the Oahe Sub-district, then he destroyed the entire sub-district system and replaced it with a new bureaucratic arrangement. The seven regional government agencies created by Janklow –called water development districts- remain operational today.

1983-1985 Last gasp for "Big Irrigation"