Because the Oahe irrigation project was the first significant “environmental” issue to be debated in South Dakota, many residents of the state were first introduced to the concept of “environmentalism” and environmental perspectives as a result of that debate.
Environmentalism, it must be understood, emerged as a cultural factor and consideration in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s. That coincided in South Dakota with the release of the Oahe project’s environmental impact statement. This was the first time that South Dakotans faced and contemplated “environmental” values on a broad scale, and those environmental values often contrasted and conflicted with economic values and factors. There was resistance and much misunderstanding about environmentalism in South Dakota and elsewhere by mainstream business and cultural institutions and the political status quo. These institutions and officials correctly understood that “environmentalism” and the so-called environmental movement threatened conventional economic pursuits.
The Oahe irrigation project may have been South Dakota’s first major environmental dispute, but environmental issues did not doom the project. The project failed primarily because rural residents, mostly ranchers and farmers, did not want the project and its features imposed on them. Through education and awareness farmers determined that involvement in a large, government-sponsored irrigation enterprise was not desirable.
Oahe was also among the nation’s first major water projects –large-scale water diversion irrigation projects- to be included in a widespread conversation about the suitability and necessity of such projects. The Oahe project also involved discussions about complex and divisive Missouri River issues, some of which remain unresolved to this day.
The controversy over the Oahe irrigation project fostered the creation of a grassroots group- United Family Farmers- that ascended to a notable place in the national annals of grassroots political activism. United Family Farmers succeeded against the odds in an arena where a vast majority of grassroots groups have not been triumphant. Their political victory in South Dakota and in Washington, DC has been singled out by historians and other experts as a pre-eminent example of a major and lasting achievement by a grassroots political action group.