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 valley using Oahe reservoir water.

Gov Ralp Herseth

South Dakota's irrigation promoters celebrated the new law allowing for water district creation, and they prepared for a public vote to create the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district. The new sub-district would encompass 15½ counties in the northeastern part of the state, including the cities of Aberdeen, Pierre and Huron. The entire Oahe irrigation project would be built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation within the boundaries of the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district.

South Dakota populism

The federal government required South Dakota to establish a water district or districts to help manage and finance big water projects, including federal irrigation projects. Instead of enacting a single conservancy district to oversee the area impacted by the Oahe irrigation project (the single-project conservancy district approach was pursued elsewhere in the western United States), South Dakota’s legislature created a single conservancy district to oversee the entire state. State lawmakers also allowed regional interests in the state to form conservancy sub-districts under the umbrella of the overarching, statewide conservancy district. This approach allowed for greater local control, and for local projects to be held accountable to local voters. Consequently, voters in various regions of South Dakota created their own conservancy sub-districts to promote and manage water development projects. A number of sub-districts would eventually be created in South Dakota through local elections, and the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district would be the largest and most active of the sub-districts in the state. South Dakota’s conservancy law stipulated that each sub-district would be managed by locally elected boards, financed by local tax levies, and could enter into contracts to pursue and construct water projects. This unique approach to organizing the state for water development reflected the state’s populist tendencies, and it would directly influence the eventual outcome of the Oahe irrigation project. In no other state were local citizens allowed such significant input into water project decision-making as in South Dakota.

Water Proposal Draws Opposition

Opposition to the creation of conservancy districts and to the Oahe irrigation project was not widespread, but it did exist. As early as 1952 farmers in the James River valley between Huron and Mitchell aggressively protested inclusion in the Oahe irrigation plan, and their protests persuaded Oahe promoters to exclude that area from the project plan. Opposition leader Frank Ferguson, a state legislator and farmer from Sanborn County, fought Oahe irrigation for many years, as evidenced in this 1958 news article that describes his opposition to the creation of conservancy districts.

Opposition to irrigation also existed in the Brown and Spink county areas, with a concentration of anti-irrigation activists living east of the James River in Brown County. That opposition would prompt the Bureau of Reclamation to eventually recommend that irrigation proposals for that area –east of the James River in Brown County- be suspended until areas where more support existed were developed and served with irrigation water.

Excitement Generally Shared in South Dakota

Most South Dakotans were excited about the prospect of a large irrigation project –Oahe- constructed to serve northeastern South Dakota.  This 1959 Huron Daily Plainsman article enthusiastically described Oahe’s potential economic and other impacts, including a “tripling of population” in the James River valley, thousands of new farm families, new sugar beet and potato industries, and over $1 billion worth of economic benefits.  These glowing forecasts were not fact-checked or scrutinized, but they inspired enthusiastic support for the Oahe irrigation project that would continue for many years,