An Environmental Lesson

Because the Oahe irrigation project was the first significant “environmental” issue to be debated in South Dakota, many residents of the state were first introduced to the concept of “environmentalism” and environmental perspectives as a result of that debate.

Environmental Lesson

Environmentalism, it must be understood, emerged as a cultural factor and consideration in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s. That coincided in South Dakota with the release of the Oahe project’s environmental impact statement. This was the first time that South Dakotans faced and contemplated “environmental” values on a broad scale, and those environmental values often contrasted and conflicted with economic values and factors. There was resistance and much misunderstanding about environmentalism in South Dakota and elsewhere by mainstream business and cultural institutions and the political status quo. These institutions and officials correctly understood that “environmentalism” and the so-called environmental movement threatened conventional economic pursuits.

The Oahe irrigation project may have been South Dakota’s first major environmental dispute, but environmental issues did not doom the project. The project failed primarily because rural residents, mostly ranchers and farmers, did not want the project and its features imposed on them. Through education and awareness farmers determined that involvement in a large, government-sponsored irrigation enterprise was not desirable.

Oahe was also among the nation’s first major water projects –large-scale water diversion irrigation projects- to be included in a widespread conversation about the suitability and necessity of such projects. The Oahe project also involved discussions about complex and divisive Missouri River issues, some of which remain unresolved to this day.

The controversy over the Oahe irrigation project fostered the creation of a grassroots group- United Family Farmers- that ascended to a notable place in the national annals of grassroots political activism. United Family Farmers succeeded against the odds in an arena where a vast majority of grassroots groups have not been triumphant. Their political victory in South Dakota and in Washington, DC has been singled out by historians and other experts as a pre-eminent example of a major and lasting achievement by a grassroots political action group.

Returning Oahe Project Lands to Original Landowners

One of the most controversial aspects of the Oahe irrigation project had been the manner by which the federal government acquired lands to create the project. The Bureau of Reclamation acquired 19,292 acres of land from private landowners to pursue development of the Blunt dam and reservoir and the Pierre Canal before construction was halted on the project in 1978. Approximately one-third of these lands were acquired using “condemnation” proceedings. In other words, landowners who resisted government efforts to purchase their land were forced to turn over their land to the project. Considerable stress and anger swept the rural neighborhoods that dealt with the Oahe project’s land agents. Many landowners who “willingly” sold their land to the government complained of harassment and intimidation. When the irrigation project was halted the issue of how to return these lands to private ownership arose. After three unsuccessful legislative attempts –in 1999, 2001 and 2003- to resolve the matter, newly elected Senator John Thune re-introduced the measure in 2006. That bill passed Congress, was signed by President George W. Bush, and became Public Law 109-458. The Blunt Reservoir and Pierre Canal Lands Conveyance Act offered original landowners or their descendants the opportunity to purchase Oahe project lands at less than market value. Some 4,700 acres of lands not re-acquired by these landowners or their descendants were conveyed to South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks, to be operated as wildlife habitat. Senator Thune’s act also de-authorized the Blunt Reservoir, and created a right-of-way in the Pierre Canal for water delivery pipelines.

WEB and a new era in water development

The demise of the Oahe irrigation project and the impact of President Carter’s water reforms forever changed the Bureau of Reclamation. After eighty years of building large irrigation projects, the agency was forced to perform different duties in the realm of water development and water management. It was an historic shift, helped along in great part by the Oahe fight and the rise of WEB. The agency’s new responsibilities included providing federal assistance to rural drinking water pipelines, and WEB was the first regional pipeline project in the country to receive such funding.

When Curt Hohn left his position as manager of the Oahe Sub-district after 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. And who could have imagined that Curt Hohn would be working closely with the same agency he had formerly worked against? Hohn later described his relationship with Bureau of Reclamation officials as tentative at first, but very quickly becoming productive and professional.

South Dakota would soon be covered with numerous regional, rural drinking water systems, each one inspired by WEB’s success and federal funding formula, a procedure Curt Hohn played a significant role in developing. Within a decade WEB was successfully serving clean drinking water to 30,000 people and 500,000 head of livestock in a 5,000 square mile region of northern South Dakota that includes 4,000 farms and nearly 70 towns. The water system became indispensable for many South Dakotans, and it was difficult to find a single person who opposed it. WEB had emerged from the ashes of the Oahe irrigation project to become one of the largest and most important rural drinking water operations in the nation.

WEB Tower

United Family Farmers Made History

Following a first meeting in 1973 around the kitchen table in the Piper’s farm home, United Family Farmers (UFF) quickly grew to wield surprising and effective political and grassroots power. When the Oahu project controversy reached it acrimonious apex, from 1975 to 1978, UFF’s membership approached 2,500, and nearly all members resided in the Oahu Sub-district area. UFF was bold, fearless and often intimidating as it faced off against South Dakota’s business, media and political establishment, and eventually UFF’s shrewd tenacity prevailed.

UFF Success

UFF crowded hearings and overwhelmed meetings with its passionate members. UFF filed lawsuits, organized and financed political campaigns, undertook masterful advertising and public education initiatives, and wrote and lobbied for legislation and policy at the local, state and federal levels. They cultivated political allies in the highest reaches of government, and they held annual potluck banquets in school gymnasiums that attracted 1,000 members and raised many thousands of dollars for the cause. Of course, UFF benefited by the election of Jimmy Carter as president, and they seized opportunities related to Carter’s presidency.

UFF Logo

Nowhere else in the West was any grassroots group so well organized to fight the irrigation establishment and the Bureau of Reclamation. UFF’s successful campaign to stop the Oahe irrigation 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 stop development of an irrigation project after construction had started on the project. There had been plenty of groups who had fought the Bureau, but UFF stands alone in its achievement. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of UFF’s accomplishments was that the organization not only halted construction of a large water project it viewed as undesirable, the organization played a major role in pursuing an alternative water project it enthusiastically supported and promoted. It is likely that without UFF and its leadership, the highly popular and successful WEB project would not exist.