Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Originally approved by Congress in 1944 as part of the federal government's Pick-Sloan Plan to harness the Missouri River, the Oahe (pronounced a-WA-he) Unit was designed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to divert water from the Missouri River's Oahe Reservoir to irrigate 750,000 acres of land in northeastern South Dakota. The federal government offered the irrigation project to South Dakota as compensation for the loss of approximately 500,000 acres of land as the result of four federal dams built on the South Dakota portion of the Missouri River. Although the Oahe Unit plan was eventually downsized to include only 190,000 acres of irrigation along the James River, support in South Dakota for the project was enthusiastic and widespread. For three decades, every major politician and the most influential businesses in South Dakota, particularly the media, championed the project, and it appeared that construction of the project was inevitable.

But information in the Oahe Unit's environmental impact statement, released in 1973, energized a small group of farmers and landowners already concerned about the project. Their grassroots group, United Family Farmers, quickly grew into a large, sophisticated organization aimed at stopping the project. United Family Farmers members were mostly farmers and ranchers whose lands would have been severed by project canals and ditches, drowned by regulatory reservoirs, mitigated for wildlife purposes, or taxed to build and maintain the project. They accused the Bureau of Reclamation of bullying and mistreating landowners and misleading the public about the irrigation project. Oahe was rare among federal reclamation projects because many farmers scheduled to receive irrigation water resisted the project. Their primary concern was that their land could not survive continual watering. Soil experts hired by United Family Farmers verified that concern. Environmentalists also opposed the Oahe Unit because the project would have destroyed wetlands, channelized the James River and many small, prairie streams, and worsened water pollution problems in the James River.

By 1976, United Family Farmers boasted nearly 2,000 members, and the organization entered candidates for elections to the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district's board of directors. The conservancy sub-district had been formed by the state of South Dakota in 1960 to provide project supporters and the Bureau of Reclamation with a government agency in the Oahe Unit area that would promote and help develop and maintain the irrigation project. United Family Farmers candidates in the 1976 elections ran against board incumbents who were supported by an organization called Friends of Oahe. This group had been organized by South Dakota's banking and construction industries and Senator George Mc-Govern to compete with United Family Farmers. The rivalry between the two groups was vicious.

Until United Family Farmers contested conservancy sub-district elections, positions on the sub-district's eleven-person board of directors had been held only by individuals who supported Oahe. Surprisingly, United Family Farmers candidates soundly defeated Friends of Oahe candidates in the November 1976 election, and the farm group assumed control of the sub-district. That impressive accomplishment, coupled with President Jimmy Carter's plan to reform federal water project planning and construction, encouraged Congress to discontinue funding for the Oahe Unit in 1977, which led to Oahe's demise.

United Family Farmers, now recognized as one of the most innovative and successful grassroots groups to oppose a Bureau of Reclamation project, conceived and advocated a congressional proposal that in 1982 traded discontinuation of the Oahe Unit for authorization of the WEB (Walworth-Edmunds-Brown) water pipeline. WEB eventually became the largest domestic water pipeline system in the United States, delivering treated Oahe Reservoir water to farms and communities in an area the size of Connecticut in northeastern South Dakota. WEB is headquartered in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Peter Carrels Aberdeen, South Dakota

Carrels, Peter. Uphill against Water: The Great Dakota Water War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

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