A Historic Request

In January, 1978 the Oahe sub-district board officially asked Congress to de-authorize the Oahe irrigation project. It was an historic request, considering the sub-district had been founded to promote this Bureau of Reclamation project. The Oahe board and the bureau's commissioner, Keith Higginson, had a strained relationship, as the bureau struggled to respect President Carter's desire to reform water policy while advancing its own mission to build large irrigation projects. Pictured here is Commissioner Higginson (second from left) with Oahe board members opposed to the Oahe project. Board members are, l to r: Glenn Overby, John Sieh, and Siegfried Swanhorst.

Higginson and Board

WEB is Born

By early 1978 United Family Farmers and the Oahe sub-district board had cultivated friendly and meaningful relationships in the Carter administration, and were cooperatively examining strategies to mothball the Oahe project. Recognizing serious problems related to the quality and quantity of drinking water in north central South Dakota, an organization promoting a water pipeline from the Missouri River to Aberdeen, with an objective to provide clean drinking water to farmers, ranchers and needy communities along the way had been established. This organization was called WEB, and was named after the home counties –Walworth, Edmonds and Brown- where the drinking water pipeline activists resided. The Oahe sub-district began studying and verifying drinking water problems for municipal and rural residents in the sub-district, and developed a supportive relationship with WEB’s leadership to begin plans to build a water pipeline serving farms, towns and livestock within the sub-district.

Oahe supporters fail

United Family Farmers had overpowered their rival, counterpart organization, Friends of Oahe, and by 1978, just three years after being organized, the pro-project group was in shambles. By then UFF had attained “movement” status as a grassroots organization. UFF’s political influence was potent and widespread, and it helped topple pro-project state legislators, including both state senators from Brown County. In addition to controlling the Oahe sub-district, UFF controlled a majority of the elected seats directing the Oahe project’s two irrigation districts – Spink and West Brown. These accomplishments were very impressive, considering that UFF had started so modestly only five years earlier. Bankers and construction interests wanting to retake control of the Oahe sub-district board in the 1978 elections formed a new group called Save Our Water Political Action Committee, or SOWPAC. Another new organization –The South Dakota Water Congress- was created by business interests and utilities as yet another means to promote water development in the state, but the most important item on the group’s agenda was to help advance the Oahe project. Both new pro-project outfits hired experienced, politically-connected staff to recover lost ground. In the 1978 sub-district elections, SOWPAC and UFF vigorously competed for five director seats. The results affirmed UFF’s popularity and tenacity, with John Sieh, Bill Piper and two other project opponents winning. UFF’s control of the Oahe board was strengthened, and SOWPAC had failed. Although nearly $50 million had already been spent on Oahe, President Carter ordered a reluctant Bureau of Reclamation to begin “termination studies” on the irrigation project. Morale in the Bureau’s Huron office plummeted, as staffers were transferred and planning was suspended. Oahe ’s former momentum had sputtered to a halt.

The Pierre Canal

Connecting the pump plant near Oahe dam to the Blunt reservoir, the 36-mile long Pierre Canal was under construction and over half finished when the Oahe irrigation project was halted. The Bureau of Reclamation described its capacity as similar to a 'medium sized river'. The right-away for this canal measured 1000 feet wide. Landowners along the canal route described the Bureau's heavy-handed land acquisition tactics. One-third of the landowners along this canal and in the Blunt Reservoir area resisted acquisition and their lands were 'condemned' and forcefully taken from them by the federal government. This remnant stretch of canal remains visible a short distance east and north of Pierre, South Dakota

Pierre Canal

The deepest portion of the Pierre Canal, the so-called 'Deep Cut', would slice through a high ridge known as Medicine Knoll for more than one mile, with a depth approaching 100 feet. Construction commenced in June, 1976, despite protests by United Family Farmers. After Oahe opponents took control, the Oahe sub-district board asked the Bureau of Reclamation to stop further work. But the Bureau refused. Even after President Carter asked Congress not to fund Oahe in 1978, the Bureau of Reclamation pushed contractors to continue work on the canal, and by September, 1978 the deep cut was completed.

Deep Cut

Oahe Board Endorses De-Authorization

In 1977, the Oahe Sub-district board had formally requested President Carter and the Congress to suspend funding for the Oahe project. They followed that with a more serious and bolder request in early 1978: They requested that Congress de-authorize the project. If this request were granted, Oahe would be permanently stopped. This historic request from the Oahe board triggered a complex, multi-year political battle in South Dakota and in Washington, DC over specifics related to formal de-authorization of the project.

Little funding for Oahe

Oahe’s skimpy 1979 federal budget allocation continued the project’s demise. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Huron, SD office was almost empty. Construction money was being used up, with no replenishment available.

Desperate deeds

The Oahe sub-district board’s request that Congress de-authorize the Oahe project angered and panicked Oahe supporters, causing several questionable reactions and responses. For example, within several days of the de-authorization request a “memo” was sent via electronic messaging to SD Governor Richard Kneip, and it appeared the source was a White House committee. The initials JC appeared on the memo, inferring that the President had signed the communication. The memo indicated the South Dakota legislature could strip the Oahe board of its power and place that power with another state-backed entity. This heartened Oahe proponents, who had been trying to remove the Sub-district board from a position of influence. The White House committee and the memo were quickly revealed as fraudulent, and the incident reflected a desperation that characterized the high frustration level of Oahe supporters.

Fake Memo

This is a copy of the fraudulent memorandum delivered to SD Governor Richard Kniep. Oahe proponents instantly applauded the memo’s message, and Governor Kneip quickly dispatched a delegation of Oahe supporters to Washington to take advantage of new opportunities described in the memo. Officials in the Carter administration declared the memo was bogus, and the memo hoax embarrassed and damaged the creditability of Oahe supporters. An investigation did not discover the source of the memo.

Oahe Controversy Harms other Water Projects

During 1978, the Carter administration instructed the Bureau of Reclamation to begin studying how to terminate the Oahe project. This caused confusion and stormy debate in South Dakota, as some hoped to salvage alternative forms of water development in lieu of the Oahe project, while others persisted in supporting the original Oahe concept.

1978 Sub-district elections

By 1978 the group “Friends of Oahe” had withered away, after being overwhelmed by United Family Farmers. Oahe proponents created another organization –Save Our Water Political Action Committee- to aid Oahe proponents seeking Oahe board seats in the 1978 elections. The group, known as SOWPAC, supported four candidates, including incumbent Steve Thorson. The remaining three candidates opposed United Family Farmer members and board incumbents John Sieh, Ken Marsh and Bill Piper. SOWPAC and Senator George McGovern proclaimed that the outcome of the 1978 board elections must be viewed as a referendum on the Oahe project.

United Family Farmers blasts SOWPAC

In its newsletter, United Family Farmers charged its new rival and adversary organization –SOWPAC- with representing construction, banking and other non-farm interests. UFF produced its newsletter numerous times each year, and it had done so since the group first formed. “Oahe Facts & News” provided information that strengthened and unified the group. The group’s logo included a farmer at his mailbox, and the newsletter and regular communications about the Oahe project and other subjects such as the sub-district elections were often found by each member in his/her mail box.

UFF prevails in 1978 elections

The Aberdeen American News tried to “spin” the 1978 Oahe Sub-district election results by proclaiming that “city” voters supported the project and rural voters did not. This theme –contrasting city versus farmer voters- would be used by the media and some politicians to deflect attention from the dominance that United Family Farmers now held over Sub-district policies. The 1978 elections actually strengthened the position of project opponents on the Sub-district board, and that meant John Sieh would remain as Chairman, Curt Hohn would continue serving as manager, and the Sub-district would continue to oppose the project. For project supporters, the 1978 Sub-district board elections signaled more frustrating times ahead. Senator McGovern and SOWPAC’s claim that the 1978 elections should be viewed as a referendum on the project backfired. It was now clear that project opponents held a distinct political advantage over their adversaries.