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 how to proceed. The agency also understood that by detailing the environmental changes their project would cause, opposition to the project would be better equipped to question and attack the project. Information about the fate of the James River, the suitability of soils for irrigation, the project’s cost-benefit ratio and other issues and conditions discussed in the EIS did indeed attract public concern. Those questioning the project used the draft and final EIS documents as useful and potent references.
The Environmental Impact Statement was first issued in a "draft" format, and was subjected to a public comment period and public hearings. At a November 29, 1972 public hearing in Aberdeen, testimony was split on the project. National environmental groups, South Dakota environmentalists and some farmers testified against the project. Concerns were also issued by state and federal government agencies with responsibilities over pollution, natural resources and outdoor recreation. The amount of opposition and their articulated concerns surprised project supporters who were unaccustomed to opposition. The fate of the James River quickly became one of the critical issues in the discussion about the Oahe project's impacts to the environment.
The draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Oahe irrigation project revealed that under Oahe’s engineering plan the James River would be transformed from a prairie river to a flowing ditch. South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks protested, describing the James as the most important ecological feature of eastern South Dakota. Local and national environmental groups also protested, and the fate of the river became a bitterly debated issue. The James is the Missouri River’s longest tributary. In northern South Dakota, where the Oahe project would have been built, the James is a slow-moving prairie river with an especially broad, flat floodplain that supports a prodigious riparian ecosystem. The Bureau of Reclamation proposed channelizing the James in this area in order to accommodate the additional flows from the irrigation project that would overwhelm the river’s natural channel. The National Audubon Society, one of the nation’s most important conservation groups, declared that channelization of the river was unacceptable. That organization and other environmental groups began lobbying against the Oahe project.
First Construction Money
President Richard Nixon signed into law a $1.55 million appropriation to begin Oahe construction as he sought re-election against George McGovern, the Democratic nominee, and a South Dakota Senator. McGovern was a staunch Oahe champion, and the pro-Oahe action by Nixon helped the incumbent win South Dakota. South Dakota’s Oahe supporters joyfully celebrated this significant milestone. The Aberdeen, SD Chamber of Commerce issued a statement that read: “Virtually every South Dakotan will be touched by expanding irrigation development that should open a new era of prosperity…” The Bureau of Reclamation’s main Oahe office in Huron, SD was humming with planners and engineers, and the agency had every confidence their ambitious blueprint would be built.