Not only did a new majority that opposed the Oahe project now control policy at the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district, a new president, Jimmy Carter, a Democrat from Georgia, was elected. Together, these two conditions would dramatically change the course of the Oahe irrigation project.
In 1977 United Family Farmers assumed control of the sub-district, with John Sieh elected as the new board chairman, Curt Hohn hired as the new sub-district manager, and the sub-district office was moved from Huron (location of the Bureau of Reclamation's Oahe project headquarters) to Aberdeen (nearer irrigation areas, and where UFF presence was stronger). The newly installed sub-district board officially asked the Bureau of Reclamation to halt project construction and landowner condemnations, and announced plans for seven public hearings on the project, each focused on a different critical issue. New President Jimmy Carter vowed to reform federal water development, and included Oahe on a long list of federal projects to be reviewed. The media labeled this collection of projects as a “hit list”. Carter’s reform plan and hit list was controversial in the US Congress, and Senate debate featured South Dakota Democratic Senators and close friends –James Abourezk and George McGovern- squaring off in sharp disagreement over whether or not Oahe should be on the list, with Abourezk supporting United Family Farmers. The Congressional version of Carter’s review list was smaller than the President’s (nine projects instead of 18), and Carter reluctantly signed the reform package into law. Oahe was one of the projects to be reviewed. The Bureau of Reclamation ignored the sub-district and continued building the project and acquiring land through condemnation or purchase from private landowners for the project. United Family Farmers and its directors on the sub-district board thwarted efforts by Oahe supporters to diminish or alter the sub-district’s authority. Oahe supporters unsuccessfully sought to replace the sub-district and change its board structure.
Oahe project examined
Supporting President Carter’s proposal to closely examine large federal water projects, with an aim to reform federal water development policies, White House officials assigned to study the Oahe project held a public hearing in the Chamber of the South Dakota House of Representatives on March 21, 1977. At least 1,000 Oahe project opponents and proponents attended, with 50 offering testimony during the 8-hour meeting. During that same time frame the Oahe sub-district board was sponsoring a series of seven local hearings focused on different topics relevant to the Oahe debate. Subjects such as soil irrigability, land condemnation practices and the fate of the James River attracted hundreds of people to each tumultuous hearing. Opening each hearing was testimony from the Bureau of Reclamation, and the agency’s representatives faced harsh criticism and many hostile questions from sub-district board members and the public. Some of the hearings last more than 12 hours. In April, President Carter announced which federal projects would be halted, and Oahe was on the list. United Family Farmers and the Oahe Sub-district celebrated, while Oahe supporters were shocked. By then, the Oahe debate had escalated into a fiery, statewide controversy. The Associated Press named Oahe the state’s number one story in 1977.
In 1977, representatives of the Oahe sub-district board of directors testified about Oahe funding before a committee of the U.S. Congress. Their message reflected the official board position: 'We don’t want you to fund the Oahe project'. Never before had the sub-district, formed in 1960, expressed such a position. Seated at a table to testify were, left to right, board members Leonard Naessig, Glenn Overby, John Sieh (at microphone), Bill Piper, Siegfried Swanhorst, and Robert Hipple. All but Hipple opposed the project.
Old Friends Differ on Oahe
Senators George McGovern (right) and James Abourezk agreed on most things, but not Oahe. Opposing Senator McGovern over Oahe, said Abourezk, “was probably the toughest thing I ever had to do in my political life.” Abourezk began his Congressional career as an Oahe supporter but he switched positions after studying the issues and meeting with Oahe opponents. When Senator McGovern fought President Carter over de-funding Oahe, Abourezk supported the President and convinced the Senate to halt Oahe. Abourezk’s work against Oahe angered the business and political establishment in South Dakota, but their efforts to influence his position were unsuccessful.
Oahe Sub-district re-organizes
After winning control of the sub-district in the 1976 elections, project opponents quickly asserted their power. A United Family Farmer leader, John Sieh, was elected by his fellow sub-district board members to serve as the district's chairman. UFF's executive director, Curt Hohn, was hired to serve as the sub-district's manager. And the office location for the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district was moved from Huron to Aberdeen, a move that allowed the new leadership in the sub-district to more easily communicate with allies in irrigation districts and in UFF.
Oahe Board Supports Construction Halt
In early 1977 the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district board passed a resolution asking President Carter and Congress to deny new construction monies for the Oahe project. Project supporters had worried that this was the type of tactic the John Sieh-led Oahe board would pursue. This can be considered the first formal rejection of the project in the history of the Oahe Sub-district. It portended the expected dramatic swing in the sub-district’s position on the project, and also that the new sub-district board majority led by Sieh, Bill Piper and other members of United Family Farmers would boldly push an anti-project agenda.
President Carter pursues water project reforms
President Jimmy Carter can be considered the first president to be influenced by the modern environmental movement. His staff and appointments reflect this, as well. Early in his first year in office, President Carter ambitiously sought to reform federal water policy. He viewed previous inclinations by the federal government to build dams, channelization projects and irrigation projects as lacking critical analysis, particularly from an environmental perspective. He identified numerous federal projects, including Oahe, as needing new levels of scrutiny before investing additional federal monies. This action upset water project advocates across the country, especially in the West.
President’s Review Panel Vsits South Dakota
President Carter’s five-person review panel held an 8-hour hearing about the Oahe project in the crowded South Dakota state capitol on March 21, 1977. Despite the high stakes and intense controversy the hearing was orderly. This important hearing was held while the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district board was conducting a series of seven public hearings on the Oahe project. The Oahe project was being subjected to widespread examination, discussion and debate as never before.
President Carter Opposes Oahe
President Carter studied his review panel’s Oahe analysis and recommended against 1978 funding for the Oahe project. A key to his decision was the Oahe Sub-district’s testimony against the project at the federal hearing. Senator James Abourezk publicly supported the sub-district’s position, and this presented a split within South Dakota’s delegation. That also hurt prospects for project supporters to win new funding support.
Oahe Work is Halted
By late 1977, Oahe’s fate looked bleak Although more than $50 million had already been spent developing the project, the public’s support for the project had dramatically decreased. Oahe supporters, led by Senator George McGovern, tried to rally, using various political strategies and public relations actions, but they were unable to gain headway. The political momentum had clearly shifted to project opponents.
Oahe Tops 1977 News
By the close of 1977, all of South Dakota was closely watching many facets of Oahe’s political controversy. Hardly a day passed that Oahe wasn’t in the news, and often some aspect of the project controversy was the lead story. Through 1977 project supporters had suffered a series of serious defeats, but the controversy was far from over.