The Oahe Irrigation Project

Credits: Pete Carrels

South Dakota’s Oahe irrigation project (technically called the Oahe Unit) had its roots deep in the history of America and the Missouri River. The sequence of events leading to the intense and history-making public debate in the 1970s over the billion-dollar (today’s dollars) Oahe irrigation project began with the earliest relationship of American citizens to the Missouri River. Issues related to the Oahe project and the Missouri River are inexorably linked, as the Oahe project was an integral aspect of plans to control and develop the Missouri River. This timeline delineates and discusses Missouri River and Oahe irrigation project events and provides a background showing how those events are related. It is notable that the political fight over the Oahe irrigation project had national implications, and resolution of that fight led to significant and lasting changes in federal water development strategies.

1804-1806 Natural Missouri River

Lewis And Clark Drawing
Lewis and Clark Explorations of the Missouri River Traveling by keelboat and dugout canoes, Lewis and Clark and their party of soldiers and scouts explored, mapped and described in detail the entire length of the Missouri River as part of their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. At the time, the...
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1820s River Changes Begin

Missouri River s
Snag Removal & Bank Stabilization Projects Modifications to the Missouri River began in the river's lower reaches, below Kansas City, including efforts to rid the channel of snags, and to construct bank stabilization projects. Snags are trees and branches lodged in the riverbed. Many steamboats were sunk or damaged by...
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1844 Flooding & Shippers Encourage River Control Projects

Steamboats Take on American Northwest After Lewis and Clark explored the Louisiana Purchase and opened the new American Northwest to commercial interests and settlement, steamboats began traveling the Missouri River. Despite its short navigation season, and with many boats grounding on sandbars and sinking on snags, the enterprise persisted and...
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1881 More Flooding

Sioux City flooded
Devastation in Riverside Communities A major Missouri River flood destroyed communities, ranches and farms. Pictured is Yankton, Dakota Territory, in April, 1881. Also pictured is the impact of the flood to Sioux City, Iowa in 1881. Courtesy of Sioux City Public Museum. Riverside neighborhoods in Yankton and Vermillion, in southeast...
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1922 South Dakota Rejects Dams

Doane Robinson
Regional Jealousies Cause Conflict Voters in South Dakota rejected a plan to develop seven small dams on the Missouri River. The plan was launched by Doane Robinson, state historian, as a means to develop irrigation, hydropower and navigation in the state. Regional jealousies cast a negative pall over the plan,...
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1933 The Dust Bowl

Dust Bowl
Drought Devastates the Plains Severe multi-year drought across the Great Plains, including South Dakota begins. The long period of inadequate precipitation, high temperatures and strong winds renews interest in damming the Missouri River to aid in the creation of irrigation projects to protect farming. Starting in 1933 and lasting about...
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1943 Floods Energize River Control Promoters

Flooded Missouri River bottomland
Destruction Causes Politics and Businesses to Unite A series of three enormous and destructive floods in spring and summer, 1943 triggered a basin wide outcry to harness and control the Missouri River. Never before had political and business interests from the river's upper and lower basins engaged to cooperatively champion...
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1944 Big, Bold River Plan

Pick Sloan
Congress Steps In In response to severe flooding the previous year Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1944. This act contains an ambitious engineering plan to harness the Missouri River, including building four big dams on the Missouri River in South Dakota, and developing a large irrigation project in...
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1948 Oahe Dam Advances

Oahe Dam Groundbreaking
Serious Opposition Does Not Stop the Plans Congress approved money to build Oahe dam, and construction began soon after. There was determined but unsuccessful opposition to the dam by those whose lands would be permanently flooded by Oahe reservoir. There were no local hearings or reports detailing the impacts of...
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1952 More Flooding

Sioux City April
Flooding Destruction in the River Valley In the spring of 1952, as work proceeded on Oahe dam, the Missouri River reminded river valley residents once again about the perils of building homes, farms and communities along one of the most flood-prone rivers in the hemisphere. By 1952 Omaha was protected...
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1959 Support for Oahe Irrigation

Gov Ralp Herseth
Conservancy Districts Advocated Governor Ralph Herseth, a Brown County farmer, helped lead the effort to pass a law allowing for the creation of water development (conservancy) districts in South Dakota. The primary goal was to establish a conservancy district to assist development of an irrigation project in the James River...
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1960 Voters Support Irrigation

Conservancy Sub District
Oahe Conbservancy Sub-Distrrict Created Voters in 15½ counties of central and northeast South Dakota supported the creation of the new Oahe Conservancy Sub-district and elected a board of directors to guide sub-district activities, with an emphasis on promoting and developing the Oahe irrigation project. Economic boosters in South Dakota celebrated...
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1961 A Farmer Goes to Washington

Ken Holum
Ken Holum Plays an Integral Role Oahe supporters in South Dakota were fortunate that a native son -Ken Holum- was nominated by President John F. Kennedy to a key federal government position promoting water development projects. Holum, a James River valley farmer from Brown County, was appointed to serve as...
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1962 Oahe Dam Dedication

Oahe Dam Dedication
JFK Dedicates the Dam On August 17, 1962 President John F. Kennedy addressed a huge, excited crowd at the Oahe Dam dedication. The dam was built 242 feet high. A request by ranchers and farmers owning land along the river that the federal government build a smaller dam and flood...
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1965 Irrigation Districts Created

Irrigation District Boundaries
Political Strategy Achieves the Vote After much controversy and many contentious public meetings, citizens with lands in two proposed irrigation districts along the James River -the West Brown and Spink irrigation districts- voted to approve formation of two irrigation districts. The federal government demanded that public interest in water projects...
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1968 Oahe is Re-authorized

Holum LBJ
Oahe Moves Forward, More Slowly In August, 1968, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson enacted Oahe's re-authorization, allowing the irrigation project to move forward. A 1964 federal law required all previously authorized but unbuilt Missouri River projects to face a re-authorization process. Oahe's re-authorization measure specified the project would be built...
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1969 Oahe’s Master Contract

Oahe momentum continues
Tax Responsibilities Assigned Representatives of the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district and the federal government agreed to an important and necessary contract at a signing event held in early 1969. This so-called "master contract" assured the federal government that local taxpayers in the sub-district would assume some of the financial responsibilities associated...
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1970 “Era of Environmentalism” Begins

Earth Day
Impacts of NEPA on Oahe The emerging power of the national environmental movement was demonstrated with passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. An important aspect of NEPA is the requirement that federal agencies must describe the impacts a development they sponsor or build will have on people...
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1972 Environmental Impact Statement

James River
EIS Gets Started The Bureau of Reclamation struggled to write an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Oahe irrigation project, a project they desperately wanted to build. This would be the very first EIS written by agency officials in its Huron, South Dakota office, so the agency was unsure about...
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1973 United Family Farmers Organized

humble origins
Lake Byron Farmers & UFF Brothers George and Bill Piper, who learned that 1,000 acres of their Beadle County family farm would be drowned beneath Byron Reservoir, an Oahe irrigation project feature, begin a concerted effort to learn more about the project, and they organized their neighbors into an informal...
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1974 UFF becomes a political force

Political Force
Multi-progged UFF Efforts 1974 marked the emergence of United Family Farmers as a potent political force. The new group launched strategic initiatives on multiple fronts, including a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation, legislative proposals in the South Dakota legislature, and an effort to win elections and place project opponents...
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1975 Supporters Fight Back

UFF Ralley
Aggressive Battles Ensue In late 1974, at the suggestion of Senator George McGovern, business promoters, construction contractors, heavy equipment 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 aggressively battled UFF by funding...
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1976 United Family Farmers Control Sub-district

School Meeting
UFF Wins Out United Family Farmers understood the importance of controlling the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district board. After victories in the 1974 sub-district elections, the organization recognized that winning control of the board was possible, but such a position hinged on their candidates winning at least four sub-district board seats during...
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1977 President Carter Seeks Oahe Review

SD State Legislature
Presidential Impacts Not only did a new majority that opposed the Oahe project now control policy at the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district, a new president, Jimmy Carter, a Democrat from Georgia, was elected. Together, these two conditions would dramatically change the course of the Oahe irrigation project. In 1977 United Family...
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1978 Sub-district Endorses De-authorization

Pierre Canal
A Historic Request In January, 1978 the Oahe sub-district board officially asked Congress to de-authorize the Oahe irrigation project. It was an historic request, considering the sub-district had been founded to promote this Bureau of Reclamation project. The Oahe board and the bureau's commissioner, Keith Higginson, had a strained relationship,...
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1979 Governor Janklow Favors Irrigation

New Leadership Newly elected Governor William Janklow zealously championed South Dakota's right to Missouri River-based water development.  Governor Janklow believed his state's land sacrifice to Missouri River's dams and reservoirs obligated the federal government to compensate South Dakota in the form of irrigation and other major water projects, and he...
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1980 Wins for Oahe Supporters

Janklow Reagan
New President: New Strategy Oahe supporters in the southern-most tier of the Oahe sub-district gained three seats on the sub-district board in the 1980 elections, but United Family Farmers maintained its control over the sub-district board. The UFF not only lost board seats but they also lost their allies in...
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1981-1982 The Politics of Water Development

UFF Leaders
Underestimated Successes 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...
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1983-1985 Last gasp for “Big Irrigation”

Completed Oahe project feature
Cendak & Garrison Extension Failures 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. Skeptics of this...
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WEB Tower
An Environmental Lesson 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...
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Senator George McGovern Senator George McGovern became the most visible and vigorous champion for the Oahe irrigation project among elected officials in Washington DC. He and his staff provided political advice and help to Oahe supporters in South Dakota, and assisted the Bureau of Reclamation proceed through authorization and funding...
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About the Author

Peter Carrels, a native of Aberdeen, SD, has written books, articles, and book chapters about nature, environmental issues, and environmental history during the past 30 years. His book, Uphill Against Water, published in 1999 by the University of Nebraska Press, provides much of the information used in this online exhibit. Uphill Against Water was described by one reviewer as one of the three most important books ever written describing politics and environmental issues in the West.

Carrels is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN. He has served as a correspondent for High Country News, an award-winning publication specializing in natural resource topics, and has worked as a communications/media specialist and grassroots political organizer for several national environmental organizations. He has also written and created two traveling exhibits about rivers. This is the first online exhibit he has organized and written. He currently works as a writer for the University of South Dakota, serving as Communications Coordinator for that university’s School of Health Sciences and School of Medicine.