New President: New Strategy

Oahe supporters in the southern-most tier of the Oahe sub-district gained three seats on the sub-district board in the 1980 elections, but United Family Farmers maintained its control over the sub-district board. The UFF not only lost board seats but they also lost their allies in the White House when challenger Ronald Reagan spoiled President Carter’s re-election bid and won the presidency.

Janklow Reagan

1980 was also notable in that United Family Farmers played a role in ruining Senator George McGovern’s re-election bid to the US Senate. McGovern’s ouster hurt Oahe, but the project was already reeling. New President Ronald Reagan (took office in 1981) and his administration brought an entirely different philosophy about environmental issues to the White House than the philosophy followed by President Carter and his staff. Members of Reagan’s team began strategizing with pro-Oahe forces, particularly South Dakota Governor William Janklow, to use the Oahe controversy to advance the Republican Party and to promote different types of irrigation development.

WEB project advances

The idea of swapping the controversial Oahe irrigation project for a broadly supported WEB pipeline system had been casually discussed by United Family Farmers, but when high-ranking Department of Interior official Guy Martin suggested it, the idea gained traction.  An irony is that Martin was serving in the same position under President Carter as Ken Holum had served under President Kennedy, but the two men differed dramatically in their feelings about Oahe. UFF described the WEB for Oahe swap as discarding a controversial irrigation project for a needed drinking water pipeline project. Many UFF members agreed it was a reasonable approach to ending the Oahe controversy. Oahe supporters, however, rejected such a “trade”, and Senator George McGovern warned that replacing Oahe with WEB was unacceptable considering the price tag of Oahe (more than $500 million) compared to the price tag of WEB (about $100 million). The Carter White House challenged South Dakota by stipulating that its support for WEB hinged on South Dakota supporting an end to Oahe. This infuriated Oahe supporters, and elevated the stature and impetus of the WEB for Oahe proposal.

Oahe Opponents Push De-Authorization

The political momentum regarding deauthorization of the Oahe irrigation project increased through 1980. That was a breakthrough, for legislative deauthorization of the project would end many years of big dreams for many people. This news story describes efforts to hold congressional field hearings on legislation that would deauthorize the project. Note that the South Dakota state legislature and numerous county commissions supported deauthorization. The act of “de-authorizing” a federal project meant reversing congressional approval for the project. In other words, a “de-authorized” project ceased to exist. In the case of Oahe, the project would be permanently halted in an unfinished condition.

White House Official Proposes Oahe Solution

Assistant Secretary of Interior Guy Martin admired United Family Farmers and enjoyed serving as the keynote speaker at the UFF annual meeting in March, 1980. During his speech Martin pronounced the Oahe project was dead, but it was his comments to Curt Hohn and other UFF leaders after the speech that were more significant. Martin indicated that President Carter’s administration would support a political trade calling for discontinuing Oahe and building the WEB project if South Dakota’s congressional delegation agreed to support such a concept. UFF and the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district immediately started cultivating political support for the idea.

Web for Oahe trade gains traction

United Family Farmers and the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district successfully promoted the concept of a “WEB for Oahe” trade, and within several months after first being suggested by Assistant Secretary Guy Martin the idea had gained a respectable level of acceptance. There were significant issues needing resolution, however. Many long-term Oahe supporters dismissed the trade as inadequate, citing the widely different price tags of building each project. It was acknowledged that building Oahe would cost at least five times the price of WEB. Politicians counting dollars viewed WEB as inadequate. This eventually led to an alternative approach to settling the Oahe dispute, including assembling a package of alternative water projects –not just WEB- to comprise the Oahe settlement proposal.

Oahe proponents gain seats

When the ballots were counted in the 1980 sub-district board elections, proponents of ‘big irrigation’ had clawed back to within one vote of possessing a majority of the sub-district board of directors. Three incumbents –all supporters of United Family Farmers- were ousted from the board. The political strategy of Oahe supporters was soon made clear. Since the Oahe project was awaiting some level of termination big irrigation’s supporters suggested splitting the sub-district into two pieces, with the lower half supporting a new, large-scale irrigation project called Cendak. Cendak would use features of the Oahe project already completed or underway, including the pump house, Pierre Canal and Blunt dam and reservoir. The biggest problem facing Cendak was its lack of scientific creditability. No recent soil studies had been undertaken, for example, and many locals doubted that soils in the Cendak area could be irrigated over the long-term. But ‘big irrigation’s’ promoters pushed on.

McGovern’s Loss and United Family Farmers

Senator George McGovern’s 1980 re-election campaign was targeted for defeat by two determined groups. The emerging ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party wanted to oust McGovern for his liberal views, including on abortion. United Family Farmers had grown weary of fighting McGovern and his staff over the Oahe issue, and the organization also desired McGovern’s defeat. UFF campaigned hard to help that happen. This page appeared as part of a four-page insert in a UFF newsletter. More than fifty examples of how McGovern tried to damage and undermine UFF were compellingly listed. McGovern’s defeat to Republican James Abdnor was one of many victories by Republicans in the 1980 elections, but no congressional incumbent anywhere else in the nation lost by such a large margin as McGovern. Also in 1980 the nation elected Ronald Reagan as the new president. Losing an ally as supportive as President Carter would hamper United Family Farmers’ quest to stop Oahe.