I made the mistake of reading Peter Carrels' Uphill Against Water not long after I'd read David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb, his account of the fall of the Soviet Union, and at times had trouble remembering whether I was in South Dakota or in the old U.S.S.R.
Of course, in South Dakota, political
opponents were not sent to the Gulag, or tortured or shot. And the
United States, as this book's remarkably happy ending shows, has a
political system that can be made to work without the shedding of
blood or the appearance of tanks in front of the White House. But
there were also a number of similarities between the
totalitarianism of the U.S.S.R. in the 1970s and that of the United
In both places, strong government
bureaucracies allied with political cadres and industrial interests
destroyed lives, indigenous peoples, healthy rural economies, and
nature, all in the name of progress.
Dakota, the instrument of progress was the Oahe Irrigation Project,
which was to provide supplementary irrigation water to farms in the
James River Valley - a valley perched between the moist Midwest and
the arid plains along the 98th meridian.
Missouri River Basin had been parted out in World War II between
two powerful but warring bureaucracies: the Army Corps of Engineers
and the Bureau of Reclamation. Their 1944 truce, the Pick-Sloan
agreement, had given the Corps the franchise to build mainstem
reservoirs on the Missouri River, and the Bureau to build enormous
canals, supplementary reservoirs and irrigation projects. It was a
shotgun wedding, done without planning, consummated to satisfy two
governmental entities' desires to impose their belief in a certain
kind of development on the basin.
I should say
that the rhetoric is mine rather than Carrels', who is a native and
resident of Aberdeen, S.D., and who writes with spare restraint
that reflects the landscape he grew up in. Nevertheless, the story
he tells, and tells very well, is shocking.
starts, South Dakota lacked a free press. The farmers and
environmentalists who opposed the Oahe project could not get
in-state newspapers to cover them.
story on the project's defects appeared in a Minnesota newspaper -
the Minneapolis Tribune - on July 22, 1973. Two months later, there
was in-state coverage: The Volante, at the University of South
Dakota, published a two-part exposé. Only eventually, when the
opposition became very strong, did the South Dakota press begin to
write about the problems with the project.
problems are familiar to us today: the project's targeted land was
not suitable for irrigation, the immense canals and the reservoirs
would have destroyed a lot of productive farmland, wetlands
"mitigation" would have taken more farms, and an intact and
biologically productive Plains river, the James, would have become
a channelized drain for irrigation return flows.
Driving South Dakota toward the destruction of the land was a
corrupt political system. The bureaucratic machinery created in the
1930s by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to extricate the
nation from the Great Depression had begun to eat its children by
the 1950s, when the South Dakota State Legislature created
legislation that allowed roughly 20 percent of South Dakota, in the
northeast corner, to organize itself as the Oahe Conservancy
The district was the on-the-ground
elected board that was to partner with the Bureau of Reclamation to
build massive irrigation works. The pumps, canals and reservoirs
would take water from the Corps' Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri's
mainstem and run it eastward across South Dakota in huge ditches,
use it for irrigation and then dump the waste water into the James
Opposition came not only from those who
understood that this bastard child of the Pick-Sloan political
accommodation would destroy soils and rivers, but also from those
the federal agencies had run roughshod over. The Corps and Bureau
would probably have been safe if they had only stolen land from and
destroyed the politically powerless Native Americans living along
the Missouri River.
But in their zeal, they also
bullied Anglo farmers and underpaid them for their
By 1973, the opposition had coalesced into
the United Family Farmers, a group of people whose farms and
livelihoods were threatened by the Oahe Project. By 1978, the group
had become a sophisticated political force that won control of the
nine-person board of the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district. In theory,
the sub-district was the local, and equal, partner of the Bureau.
But when the sub-district tried to pull the plug on the project,
construction continued as if the sub-district and its powers did
The unexpected politics of Oahe makes
this book fascinating. We tend to associate Democrats with
environmentalism. Yet it was President Richard Nixon's signing, on
Jan. 1, 1970, of the National Environmental Policy Act that gave
Oahe's opponents access to information and public forums at which
to contest the federally funded project. And it was President
Ronald Reagan's insistence that local entities bear some of the
cost of these bloated, uneconomic projects that finally led to
Oahe's replacement by an urban water supply system for South
Dakota's small towns and cities.
On the other
hand, it was Democratic President Jimmy Carter, the cost-conscious
engineer who had been offended by Army Corps projects in Georgia,
who joined with Oahe's opponents to do the almost impossible: stop
a project already under way.
politics was played by South Dakota's senior Democratic Sen. George
McGovern, a skilled rural politician who did everything he could to
keep Oahe alive, including encouraging the destruction of the Oahe
sub-district once the opponents took control. On the national
stage, McGovern was the great anti-war liberal, fighting to stop
the nation's war machine in Vietnam.
At home, he
was allied with the construction industry and chamber-of-commerce
boosters to thwart a coalition of farmers and environmentalists
attempting to protect land they lived on, farmed and loved. An
indigenous revolution in Southeast Asia was one thing. An
indigenous revolution in the heartland was quite
Ed Marston is
publisher of High Country News.