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 sub-district creation as a great victory.

Conservancy Sub District

The 1960 report also contained at least one major surprise. Proposed irrigation was reduced from 750,000 acres to 482,000 acres, and development would be pursued in stages, with a first stage to include 298,000 acres of irrigation. Despite the new approach to construction (building in stages) and the dramatic reduction in irrigation, the Oahe project was supported by elected leaders, newspapers and media, the business community, and the general public. Newly elected leaders of the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district were eager to help the Bureau of Reclamation move the project forward.

Voters in 1960 overwhelmingly approved the creation of a conservancy sub-district, allowing the development of the Oahe irrigation project.

Oahe project blueprint

The Bureau of Reclamation’s 1960 report detailing the Oahe project’s design -the first comprehensive description of the project- described an expansive and daunting engineering endeavor. Oahe irrigation project construction would include three new dams on the plains between the Missouri and James rivers, with many thousands of acres of productive ranch and farmland drowned beneath new reservoirs. The blueprint also included more than one hundred miles of large water delivery canals that would sever existing ranches and farms, and cause hardships for farmers and ranchers. There would also be thousands of miles of smaller delivery canals in the proposed irrigation areas, hundreds of miles of streams and rivers would be channelized, a gridwork of more than 14,000 of miles of drainage tiles would be installed beneath irrigated acres, hundreds of large water pumps necessary because of the flat terrain, and a complex system of additional canals and ditches measuring many hundreds of miles in total length to serve the project's drainage design. Oahe’s boosters were unfazed at the scale and cost (up to $500 million in 1960 dollars) of the project, and with the impacts to the environment and to families. In addition to engineering descriptions, the Bureau of Reclamation included appealing economic forecasts in the report. An example: The agency claimed thirty new agricultural processing plants would be built in eastern South Dakota to accommodate new farm production from the Oahe project, creating 3,000 new jobs. The rosy economic forecast added to the existing enthusiastic support for the Oahe project. City leaders in Aberdeen and Huron believed their communities would dramatically grow and prosper.