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 promotional advertisements, opposing UFF-backed measures in the South Dakota legislature, and promoting Oahe in Washington, DC. Oahe supporters finally understood they needed an organization other than the Bureau of Reclamation and the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district to defend Oahe, and the political dispute over Oahe quickly escalated into a bitter struggle that was especially contentious in the Oahe sub-district area, but it was felt throughout the entire state.

The South Dakota legislature became an Oahe battleground, with United Family Farmers lobbying for several anti-project bills, but Friends of Oahe blocked every UFF-backed measure. South Dakota Governor Kneip traveled to Washington and testified before Congress, claiming Oahe would transform the James River valley into “an abundant garden”. UFF retaliated, renting a large plane and flying 200 UFF members to Washington to lobby against construction appropriations. Kneip, Holum , McGovern and others successfully convinced Congress to invest more money into Oahe, and the Bureau of Reclamation received $7.25 million for 1976 project construction. Oahe supporters in South Dakota were ecstatic. They had thwarted the upstart farmer populists. The largest project in the history of South Dakota was moving ahead, and the future looked bright. No federal irrigation project in the long history of the Bureau of Reclamation had ever been stopped once construction had commenced.

Medicine Knoll Rally

UFF Ralley
Dump the Ditch Button

United Family Farmers wanted to unite and energize their organization and the growing anti-Oahe movement, and the idea for a large outdoor rally was born. Medicine Knoll was the ideal location, as it is a topographic landmark soaring above the Plains a dozen miles east of Pierre, South Dakota. It was also where the Bureau of Reclamation would commence digging the massive Pierre Canal in two directions. Rancher Roy Runge eagerly hosted the event on his land where the deepest part of the 37-mile long canal would be excavated, destroying his family-run cattle operation. On a sweltering July afternoon, more than 800 Oahe opponents from across South Dakota journeyed to this remote setting to hear music and speakers and to share and increase unity and camaraderie. A rally highlight was the unexpected visit and speech by Senator James Abourezk, a project supporter who nevertheless sympathized with United Family Farmers. Abourezk’s position on Oahe began to shift as the result of his stop at Medicine Knoll, and he later became a helpful ally to United Family Farmers.

In July, 1975, more than 800 South Dakotans journeyed to a remote hilltop called Medicine Knoll in Hughes County to demonstrate their Oahe project opposition. From a makeshift stage speakers implored activists to keep fighting. This important event increased the visibility of United Family Farmers, and delivered a message that opponents to Oahe were prepared for long-term political battle. Pictured is State Representative Ken Stofferahn, from Humboldt, at the podium explaining his opposition to the irrigation project. Two years after the rally this exact place was gone, destroyed during construction of the Pierre Canal’s so-called deep cut. UFF contended that the Bureau of Reclamation sought special revenge for those opposing their project, and intentionally and hurriedly dug the massive canal through Medicine Knoll despite Oahe sub-district protests over this action, and President Carter’s proposal to de-fund the Bureau’s work on Oahe."

UFF Leader has Land Condemned

Rancher Roy Runge, owner of the land where United Family Farmers hosted its successful Medicine Knoll rally in 1975, had part of his Medicine Knoll Ranch condemned by the Bureau of Reclamation so the agency could build a deep stretch of the Pierre Canal. Runge, who resisted federal government efforts to acquire his land, was an admired and trusted figure among project opponents and in his area. His plight –he claimed the Bureau of Reclamation dramatically undervalued his land- angered farmers and ranchers and generated high levels of antipathy against the federal government and the Oahe project.

Oahe film shakes up State

With funding assistance from the South Dakota Committee on the Humanities (SDCH), filmmakers Doug and Judi Sharples completed their ambitious documentary film, “Oahe: A Question of Values” in 1975. The Sharples had learned about Oahe while following Senator George McGovern’s re-election campaign in 1974, and filming political commercials for Senator McGovern. Following completion of their Oahe film, the Sharples and SDCH began showings at forums and community gatherings. Initially, the film was well received. Both the Bureau of Reclamation and United Family Farmers gave it their blessings, agreeing that the film did a masterful job of addressing numerous issues related to the growing controversy. United Family Farmers was especially delighted that their perspectives were included in the film, as the general media had downplayed or ignored their concerns, and the film instantly elevated those concerns to parity level with project benefits advanced by project supporters. This was the first time many South Dakotans were able to ponder the different perspectives side by side. Soon, Oahe supporters, led by Senator George McGovern and Friend of Oahe, came to understood that the film damaged the project’s popularity. They complained that the film was biased and poorly made, and they threatened SDCH. As the film’s controversy escalated so did publicity and interest related to the film, and United Family Farmers sought to expand the film's exposure. Two of the state’s three major television networks showed the film, while a third refused, saying the film was one-sided. Senator McGovern’s complaints reached the national level –SDCH derived some of its funding from the National Committee on the Humanities- and a negotiated settlement provided Friends of Oahe with funding to produce their own film, an effort that fizzled without consequence. The Sharples’ film proved to be a valuable tool for project opponents to recruit allies and weaken the public’s long-held favorable sentiment about the Oahe project.

DVD copies of the complete film are available by contacting Cottonwood Productions, P.O. Box 476, Wakonda, SD 57073. Phone: (605) 267-2859. Or by e-mail:

Senator McGovern's Champions Oahe

Senator George McGovern

Senator George McGovern became the most visible and vigorous champion for the Oahe project among elected officials in Washington DC. He and his staff provided political advice to Oahe supporters in South Dakota and helped the Bureau of Reclamation proceed through authorization and funding phases of the project. It was Senator McGovern who recommended formation of the group, Friends of Oahe, as a means to counter the political activities and successes of United Family Farmers. McGovern traced his support for the Oahe irrigation project to the hardships he witnessed during the dust bowl era.

Governor Kneip Weighs In


South Dakota Governor Richard Kneip regularly cited the economic impacts of the Oahe irrigation project as a primary reason why the project should be built.

Big Plumbing

Big Plumbing

United Family Farmers’ legal efforts to block construction of the Oahe pumping plant failed, and construction of the massive facility roared ahead. The pump house structure would measure 70 feet by 219 feet, with a 58.5 foot height. Inside, four 9,000 horsepower motors and pumps would be housed. Each giant pump could convey 2,250 gallons of water-per-second to the top of nearby river bluffs and into the head works of the proposed Pierre Canal. Total water proposed to be pumped through the facility: 147 billion gallons each year. 94% would be used for irrigation.

Oahe supporters cheered progress on the Oahe pumping plant, an essential feature of the irrigation project.