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Oahe irrigation potential remains untapped

When the Army Corps of Engineers floated the idea recently of charging to use some water stored in reservoirs on the Missouri River, Gov. Dennis Daugaard reminded the agency that irrigation promised to the state never happened.

"The federal government promised South Dakota it would develop 950,000 acres for irrigation to help offset that loss (of land flooded when dams were built)," Daugaard wrote in a letter to the corps.

What Daugaard did not say in his letter is that the current political drama surrounding the corps' controversial proposal to begin charging for water use pales in comparison to the monumental battle waged over whether to irrigate much of the James River Valley with Missouri River water.

The controversy, while much quieter now, continues to the present day.

Depending on the source, the Oahe Irrigation Project was either a missed opportunity that would have financially benefited a group of farmers and South Dakota as a whole, or a colossal boondoggle conceived by well-meaning but ill-informed bureaucrats.

"That irrigation project was proposed by wide-eyed boosters that didn't think about things like soil irrigability," said Pete Carrels, author of "Uphill Against Water," a book that examines how the Oahe Irrigation Project was killed.

"They looked at this like turning the James River Valley into a Garden of Eden. If you start looking beyond the Garden of Eden, you find out the devil's in the details. And the details weren't very appealing."

Owen Ambur, longtime aide to the late Sen. Jim Abdnor, said he still believes the project could have done some good.

"It was very frustrating to see the federal government in effect breaking its promise to the Dakotas," Ambur said.

"When you have a drought, those people would be raising crops, and the value of commodities would be up. They would be spending money in local communities. It was always clear that among the primary beneficiaries would be local businesspeople -- implement dealers, people who sold household goods and groceries. By all accounts, any of the cost-benefit analyses done, it would have been a net positive, economically speaking."

The origins of the Oahe Irrigation Project are found in the 1944 Flood Control Act and the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program.

The irrigation of hundreds of thousands of acres was to be compensation for the loss of about 2 million acres of river bottomland in the Dakotas and Montana, with about 1 million acres lost in the Dakotas.

In that same 1944 law, the corps believes it finds the authority to charge for the use of surplus reservoir water for "municipal and industrial purposes," according to a report on the agency's website. The agency is seeking to write rules detailing how that process would be carried out.

The proposal has drawn criticism from political leaders, with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., frequently deriding it as a "power grab."

'Shotgun wedding'

The irrigation portion of the 1944 act brought together the visions of two federal agencies -- the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation -- with what a 2008 federal report called "an ill-conceived shotgun wedding."

The project was to employ a series of canals and pumps to move water from the Oahe dam at Pierre to an Oahe Irrigation Unit in Brown and Spink Counties, over what Carrels of Aberdeen calls "the flattest part of a state everybody thinks is flat."

As plans developed, engineers included more canals to help drain water away from clay soils in the region, and Carrels said there would have been a non-stop hum from the number of pumps that would have been needed to make the whole thing go.

From the time Congress OK'd more specific plans for the Oahe Irrigation Project in the early 1960s until the project was ready to get under way a decade later, the stars had aligned against it. The collective priorities of the country and its government had shifted, particularly when it came to conservation and the environment, said John Husmann, an associate professor in Dakota Wesleyan University's Department of History and Political Science.

"By the time it all gets going, there was an environmental consciousness that wasn't the same as when it was first envisioned. And there was a policy framework in place that wasn't there in the beginning," Husmann said.

Despite ongoing, active support from the South Dakota Legislature, governors and the entire congressional delegation, an unlikely combination of forces made history by ultimately killing the project in 1982.

Grassroots opposition, new environmental laws, an economic downturn and a spat between a congressman and the Legislature over South Dakota's ban on out-of-state waterfowl hunters all had a hand in sinking the project.

A group called the United Family Farmers formed to oppose the project, and Huron area farmer George Piper remembers being alarmed to learn of the extent of the irrigation plans during the summer of 1972.

"Everybody was surprised," Piper said, noting that the new National Environmental Protection Act required the federal government to release details it had not been required to in the past.

Piper and others credit NEPA and its requirements for environmental impact statements with forcing the Bureau of Reclamation to release detailed plans that ballooned local opposition.

Plans to build a network of canals across farms from Pierre to Aberdeen, to install pumps and to "channelize" the James River concerned residents, according to several accounts. Farmers not in line to get irrigation still would have had canals crossing their land, and some slated to get water worried that irrigation would leach salt from their land.

But supporters remained, and the controversy dominated statewide news for the better part of a decade, Piper said.

"There were intense feelings in the neighborhood," Piper said. "And it was a statewide issue."

'Over and done with'

When the Bureau of Reclamation held its first public hearing on the matter in Aberdeen, so many people showed up to speak that the agency had to add a second day to its agenda.

The political drama surrounding the fight came into play in the 1980 Senate race when incumbent George McGovern, of Mitchell, was defeated by challenger Jim Abdnor, of Kennebec. Then-Sen. Jim Abourezk had decided to not support the project. The Carter administration, too, turned against the project, said Ambur, the former Abdnor aide, as officials were looking for projects to kill as they worked to cut federal spending.

While both Abdnor and McGovern supported plans to irrigate the James River Valley, McGovern had a more tangled relationship with interested parties as the incumbent. Ambur remembers Democratic voters deciding to support the Republican Abdnor over McGovern as part of the complex political intrigue surrounding the project.

"Every vote we got was like two for one," Ambur said, noting the large number of Democrats that populate the James River Valley would typically have supported McGovern.

Piper said the United Family Farmers "worked through all the avenues available to us -- the Legislature, Congress, the courts." But a turning point came when those opposed to the project began getting elected to the Oahe Conservancy Sub-District board of directors. (Conservation districts were created at the state level to help manage construction of the dams and irrigation projects.) By 1976, opponents had gained a majority on the board.

A series of board actions and work by the newly elected Carter administration and congressional opponents began turning the tide. Several delays, including the South Dakota Legislature's foot-dragging in opening up waterfowl hunting to non-residents, held off construction of the irrigation project until Congress choked off funding in the late 1970s and then finally killed it in 1982.

As part of the compromise to end the irrigation project, Ambur remembers how congressional staffers and elected officials put together plans for the WEB Water System for drinking water in north-central South Dakota, and other rural water projects followed.

Now, it would take an act of Congress to launch another irrigation project, and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said he sees little appetite for that. Momentum has shifted to the rural drinking-water projects, he said.

"The time has passed when that is a possibility. It's over and done with," Johnson said, who also opposes the Corps of Engineers plan to charge for Missouri River water.

In his book, Carrels quotes environmental lobbyist David Weiman, who lauded the United Family Farmers. According to Weiman, the effort that stopped the Oahe Irrigation Project was a singular and historic example of grassroots opposition.

"There was no place in the country," said Weiman, "that was as well organized to fight the Bureau of Reclamation."