A history of how a grassroots rebellion won a water war

  • Book over of "Uphill Against Water"


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 States.

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.

In South 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.

The 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.

For 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.

The first 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.

The 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 Sub-district.

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 River.

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 land.

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 not exist.

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.

The strangest 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 another.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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