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UPHILL AGAINST WATER by Peter Carrels

UPHILL AGAINST WATER

The Great Dakota Water War

By Peter Carrels

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8032-1496-0
Publisher: Univ. of Nebraska

paper 0-8032-6397-X An illuminating study of local resistance to a huge federal water project. Although rivers crisscross South Dakota, environmental journalist Carrels writes, much of the land is semiarid and only marginally suited to agriculture. This did not stop 19th-century boosters from proclaiming that the mere act of farming brought on rain—“rain follows the plow,” one promotional jingle assured would-be settlers—and from beseeching the federal government to harness the power of the Missouri and other rivers for agricultural irrigation. When the government finally did step in, the Bureau of Reclamation secured some 350,000 acres of fertile river bottomlands from their reluctant Indian owners and set in motion a huge and expensive series of dams collectively called the Oahe Irrigation Project. Controversial from the start (the bureau’s own experts concluded that local soils were not conducive to irrigation on the scale the government proposed), the project met concerted resistance from a group of local farmers, in whose interest the dam building program was ostensibly undertaken; these farmers, Carrels writes, “believed the bureau was mistaken about fundamental issues such as soil irrigability, drainage, and the project’s cost-benefit economics. And they were convinced that the bureau had intentionally withheld information about Oahe from those who would be directly impacted by its development.” Although the project enjoyed the strong support of South Dakota senator George McGovern and other politicians, the opposition had the talents of environmental activists and up-and-coming politicians like current senator Tom Daschle, and when McGovern was voted out of office in 1980, the Oahe project began to collapse. Carrels holds that Oahe “is the only federal reclamation project that was halted while under construction,” and he does a fine job of telling just how this came to pass. Of interest to students of Western American resource issues, as well as of grassroots political organizing.