In 1981, officials in the Reagan White House and South Dakota Governor William Janklow hatched a plan involving the fates of the Oahe irrigation project and the WEB water project in an effort to help Republican Congressman Clint Roberts defeat Democrat Congressman Tom Daschle in their race for South Dakota’s consolidated U.S. House seat.
Reagan officials announced that Congressman Roberts had persuaded the administration to support WEB and resolution of the Oahe issue, but that Congressman Daschle first needed to convince House Democrats to support WEB funding. The Republicans expected Daschle would fail, and Republicans would would then blame Daschle for WEB’s collapse in Washington. This would help Roberts defeat Daschle. Not only did Daschle surprise political insiders by convincing the House of Representatives to support WEB, he later triumphed over Roberts.
As part of the ongoing and controversial Oahe settlement proposal, the Reagan administration supported WEB construction, but also supported “big irrigation” projects in South Dakota (Cendak and Garrison Extension). That support included requiring that several features of the struggling Oahe project –the pump house, Blunt dam and reservoir and the Pierre canal- be part of the new Cendak project. The original idea of simply trading WEB for Oahe was no longer a consideration. If Oahe was to be permanently halted, monies to advance not only WEB, but Cendak, Garrision Extension, and several other projects, would be made available. After much debate United Family Farmers and the Oahe Sub-district board reluctantly agreed to a bill that allowed Cendak to use Oahe project features. In exchange for that concession, all other features of the Oahe project were officially discontinued, effectively ending any chance that the original Oahe project would ever be built. The master contract between the federal government and the Oahe sub-district was also cancelled, and this was also a major victory for project opponents. On September 23, 1982 Congress passed the Oahe settlement bill, and President Ronald Reagan quickly signed the measure into law. About one month later, John Sieh lost his Sub-district board re-election bid, and UFF lost their majority on that board, as well. Oahe proponents had returned to power over the Sub-district after six years of control by UFF, but it was too late to change Oahe’s destiny. The tumultuous saga of the Oahe irrigation project was over.
WEB and a New Era in Water Development
When Curt Hohn hurriedly left his position as manager of the Oahe Sub-district after irrigation supporters won a majority of the sub-district seats in the 1982 elections, he went straight to the WEB project, where he became that project’s first general manager. Now, instead of opposing a project, Hohn would build a project. The demise of Oahe and the impact of President Carter’s water reforms forever changed the Bureau of Reclamation. After eighty years of building irrigation projects and overcoming most of their opponents, the agency was forced to perform different duties in the realm of water development and water management. It was an historic shift, and the agency’s new responsibilities included providing federal assistance to rural drinking water pipelines such as WEB. Who could have imagined that Curt Hohn would be working closely with the same agency he had formerly worked against. Reports indicate Hohn played a central role in helping the Bureau of Reclamation figure out its new roles in water development, especially pertaining to the agency's role regarding rural water pipeline systems. Within a decade WEB was successfully serving clean, healthy drinking water to a vast region of northern South Dakota that measured 5000 square miles. More than 30,000 people subscribed to WEB, including 4,000 farms and nearly 70 towns. Additionally, more than half a million head of livestock were drinking WEB water. WEB had become an indispensible part of a region’s rural culture, and it was difficult to find a single person who opposed it. WEB had emerged from the ashes of the Oahe irrigation project and became the largest rural drinking water system in the country.
UFF made history
Following that first meeting in 1973 around the kitchen table in the Piper farm home, United Family Farmers quickly grew to unexpected power and impressive effectiveness. When the Oahe project controversy reached its acrimonious apex, from 1975 to 1978, UFF’s membership approached 2,500, and nearly all members resided in the Oahe sub-district area. UFF was bold, fearless and often intimidating as it faced off against South Dakota’s media, political and business establishment, and eventually UFF’s shrewd tenacity prevailed. UFF crowded hearings and overwhelmed meetings with its passionate members. They filed lawsuits, organized and financed political campaigns, undertook masterful advertising and public education initiatives, and wrote and lobbied for legislation. They cultivated political allies in the highest levels of government, and they held annual potluck banquets in school gymnasiums that attracted almost 1,000 people. Nowhere else in the West was any grassroots group so well organized to fight the business and political establishment and the Bureau of Reclamation. UFF’s successful campaign to stop the Oahe project marks the only time in the long history of the Bureau of Reclamation –the agency was organized in 1902- that a grassroots group was able to halt development of an irrigation project after construction had started on the project. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of United Family Farmer’s accomplishments was that the organization not only derailed construction of an undesirable project, it played a major role in developing WEB, a popular and beneficial project.
United Family Farmers received capable, often extraordinary leadership from three key activists. These men, (left to right) John Sieh, George Piper, and Curt Hohn, blended temperaments, creativity and determination. Their collaborative style of leadership over the entire organization reflected a similar trait –cooperation- that reverberated through the organization’s membership. This photo was taken in 1988, six years after the Oahe fight had concluded.
Deauthorization Pushed at High Speed
Curt Hohn, John Sieh and other Oahe project opponents hoped to officially and permanently halt the Oahe project before the November, 1982 Sub-district board elections, so they relentlessly pushed the deauthorization process. Sieh was involved in a competitive election race for his board seat, and so were other project opponents on the Sub-district board. Project opponents worried that if Oahe wasn’t halted before the Sub-district elections a ripe opportunity to end the project might be lost if project supporters triumphed in the elections. Negotiations over deauthorization issues involving the Oahe Sub-district, South Dakota officials, and the state’s congressional delegation reached a fever pitch in spring and summer, 1982. This news story describes the Oahe Sub-district’s apprehensive agreement to drop the word “deauthorization” as part of the Oahe settlement legislation. Deciding on the exact language in the so-called settlement bill was tricky, as water development interests insisted on salvaging features of the Oahe project, as well as creating other opportunities to build new water projects in South Dakota, and Oahe opponents wanted language included in the bill that halted the Oahe project with as much certainty as possible.
The End of Oahe
United Family Farmers and the Oahe Sub-district reluctantly agreed to critical concessions in order to achieve passage of the Oahe settlement legislation. From an historical perspective, this legislation officially ended the Oahe project dream that would have developed large-scale irrigation in the James River valley. That dream stretched back almost forty years to federal passage of the Flood Control Act and the Pick-Sloan Plan in 1944. For much of that time most South Dakotans viewed the Oahe project favorably. United Family Farmers had accomplished something many perceived as being nearly impossible – they thwarted construction of the Oahe project despite the vigorous advocacy of every governor and nearly every major political official in South Dakota spanning four decades.
WEB’s high-profile and newsworthy groundbreaking was held only days before the 1982 general election, and the event became mired in special interest and partisan politics, as candidates and officials attempted to take credit for the milestone. This distracted from the impressive, non-partisan grassroots work that had created WEB, and from the valuable service WEB would provide. To move from concept to construction in eight years was a notable achievement for WEB’s devoted activists and supporters.
1982 Sub-district elections
Supporters of “big irrigation” finally recaptured control of the Oahe Sub-district board in the 1982 elections, including defeating their long-time nemesis John Sieh. Sieh and United Family Farmers had dictated Sub-district policy since early 1977, and they had recently accomplished their primary goal: permanently halting the Oahe irrigation project. And so, despite their 6-5 advantage, the new pro-irrigation Sub-district board majority realized that although they controlled the Sub-district it was too late to resurrect the Oahe project. Nevertheless, the new majority was determined to promote other irrigation projects, including Cendak and Garrision Extension.
Oahe Sub-District is Split
To facilitate development of the Cendak irrigation project Governor William Janklow and other irrigation supporters moved quickly to break up the Oahe Sub-district and create a new entity called the Cendak Conservancy Sub-district. The new sub-district would include what once had been the bottom half of the Oahe Sub-district, including all of Hughes, Hand and Hyde counties, and parts of Beadle, Spink and Faulk counties. The primary motivation for this political maneuver was to establish a supportive constituency for the Cendak irrigation project.