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 eastern South Dakota. This massive public works project combined the river development plans of two competing federal agencies, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation -led by Glenn Sloan (on the right, in the photo), and General Lewis Pick of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The plan to harness and control the river became known as the Pick-Sloan Plan.
The Army Corps of Engineers typically pursues projects related to flood control and commercial navigation. The Bureau of Reclamation builds irrigation and hydropower projects. The two agencies engaged in a bitter fight trying to gain authority in the Missouri River basin. President Franklin Roosevelt threatened to oust both agencies from the river basin and create a new agency –The Missouri Valley Authority- if they couldn’t work together. A compromise was expeditiously arranged, and both agencies got almost everything –hundreds of separate projects- they wanted.
The political and business establishment in the Missouri River basin had endured ample humiliation because of Missouri River flooding, and it fell to two men to arrive at a plan to control and use the river and its water. Colonel Lewis Pick, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Missouri River division, and Glenn Sloan, of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Billings, Montana office, represented their respective agencies. The battle between the two agencies to control development in the Missouri River basin became one of the great political fights in the history of the nation. Sloan wanted lots of new irrigation in the basin -4.7 million acres- and proposed a high dam near Pierre, SD to facilitate the development of an irrigation project in the James River valley. It was one of 90 dams the agency wanted to build in the basin. Pick suggested a series of big dams on the Missouri ‘s mainstem, but the dam he proposed near Pierre was much smaller than Sloan’s design. In 1943, at a Pierre, South Dakota lunchtime meeting arranged by SD Governor M.Q. Sharpe, Robert Hipple introduced Pick to Sloan, and fostering a personal relationship between the two men that created a so-called compromise called The Pick-Sloan Plan. Neither agency sacrificed much to reach an agreement, however, as the Pick-Sloan Plan combined neary every feature of each agency's river basin proposal.
Under the Pick-Sloan Plan, the largest of the four large dams to be built on the river in South Dakota would be named Oahe, and it would be constructed north of Pierre. The large reservoir backed up behind Oahe dam would provide water to an irrigation project named the Oahe Unit that would irrigate lands in the James River valley. Implementation of the Pick-Sloan Plan would forever change the Missouri River, and it would uniquely unite two competing federal water agencies, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in managing, developing and exploiting Missouri River flows.
Included in the plan were proposals for five new large dams on the Missouri River (four in South Dakota; one in North Dakota), river modification projects in the Missouri’s lower reaches, and hundreds of dams for Missouri River tributaries. There were also proposals for many irrigation and hydroelectric projects. The Oahe Unit was one of the largest irrigation proposals in the plan. More than 750,000 acres of land in eastern South Dakota –most of it in the James River valley- were proposed for irrigation under the Oahe Unit. It must be noted that proposing the Oahe Unit marks the first time the Bureau of Reclamation expressed an interest in irrigating lands that were already successfully farmed. Other Bureau projects opened new lands to farming, and that is why the agency was known for its “reclamation” projects. The Oahe irrigation project would also be the furthest east the agency had ventured.
The Contributions of Robert Hipple
No individual contributed more to efforts to develop the Missouri River in South Dakota than Robert Hipple. A Pierre, SD newspaperman, Hipple cultivated relationships with countless Senators, Congressmen and water development officials on all levels. As a journalist he coined the expression, Dirty Thirties, forever putting a face on a difficult decade. Hipple introduced Lew Pick to Glenn Sloan, an introduction that resulted in a plan that forever changed the Missouri River. Hipple also played a key role in gaining government funding for Oahe dam, and he was a founder of and a charter member who served 20 years on the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district board of directors. Hipple was influenced in his desire to develop Oahe dam and the Oahe irrigation project by vivid, lasting memories of the Dirty Thirties.