Pick-Sloan and Garrison Dam

December 5, 2007

The Missouri River is the longest river in the United States. From its headwaters in western Montana, the Missouri River runs almost 2500 miles before it dumps into the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Some say the Mississippi River is a tributary of the Missouri rather than the other way around.

Since its creation, the Missouri River would experience widespread flooding. After substantial snow melt or rain in spring, runoff would flow into the Missouri tributaries causing the Missouri River to overflow its banks and flood many many miles on both sides of the river.

One early spring when I was young, my parents took me down to the Bismarck train station, which is now the Fiesta Villa restaurant. When you looked down where the Kirkwood Mall, Barnes & Noble and the innumerable fast food joints are now located, all you could see was water in both directions because of a spring flood.

1943 was a year of particularly severe flooding. A number of lives were lost and millions of dollars of damages caused. The severity of this flood exceeded the previous record set in 1881. Missouri River flooding became the “topic de jour.” Washington pretty much handled things the same way back then as they do now. Congress held hearings.

Colonel Lewis A. Pick was asked to attend a special meeting of the House of Representatives Flood Control Committee in the spring of 1943 to talk about the flood and the Missouri River Basin. He was the newly appointed Missouri River Division head of the Army Corps of Engineers which was headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska (as for the construction branch of the military, the big dogs that run the Army Corps of Engineers are headquartered in the Pentagon, I realize). Omaha had been hard hit by the 1943 flood and the Omaha office of the Army Corps of Engineers itself had been inundated by flood water. After the hearings, the committee ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a report on what to do about flood control and development of the Missouri River.

Opinion makers had written about and worked toward developing the Missouri River for many years before the 1943 flood. Development was always stymied by fighting between the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota and the lower basin states of Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. Everyone wanted flood control but the lower basin states wanted a navigation focus while the upper basin wanted the focus on irrigation and hydroelectric power generation. In addition the upper basin states were more “states rights” in terms of water development while the downstream states looked more towards the federal government. The upstream states operated through the Bureau of Reclamation agency of the Interior Department which utilized the respective state laws on water while the downstream states utilized the Army Corps of Engineers which said the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gave the federal government the right to manage all “navigable” waterways.

I still don’t understand the Army Corps of Engineers continued love affair with navigation. It’s as though their mind set is frozen in time and that paved highways, trucks, trains, and airplanes don’t exist and that rivers are still the only way to transport the Nation’s commerce.

Less than 90 days after being directed to do so, Colonel Lewis A. Pick, on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers, issued a 13- page report to the House of Representatives Flood Control Committee containing recommendations for flood control and development of the Missouri River. Pick’s plan borrowed heavily from an earlier Army Corps of Engineers study of development for the Missouri River done in1939. He also had been attending luncheons and other public events and proposing the plan he presented to the congressional committee. He proposed building about 750 miles of levies from the mouth of the Missouri to Sioux City Iowa on both sides of the river for a total of 1500 miles.He also called for completing the dredging of a 9- foot deep channel from the mouth to Sioux City for barge navigation, (which was as far as navigation could go up the river, building 18 tributary dams, and five more Missouri River main stem dams to go along with the Fort Peck Montana dam which had already been built. The plan would impound more than 80 million acre feet of water, the vast majority of which was intended to be used for downstream navigation. Much water had to be impounded to be released under well-regulated circumstances and in sufficient amounts to permit barge traffic in the 750- mile channel from Sioux City Iowa to the Missouri River mouth. Little of the impounded water was necessary for flood control. Glen Sloan of the Bureau of Reclamation said only 2 million acre-feet of water in storage could have prevented the 1943 flood. Four of General Pick’ s dams were to be built in South Dakota and one dam, Garrison would be built in North Dakota. When you include the Fort Peck Dam of Montana which had already been built, the plan called for a total of six massive main stem dams on the Missouri River. Fort Peck in Montana, Garrison in North Dakota, and Gavin’s Point, Fort Randall, Big Bend and Oahe in South Dakota. The plan did not pose any hydroelectric generation.

During this same time, The Bureau of Reclamation was doing its own study/report/recommendation for Missouri River development. They had been working since receiving congressional authorization in 1939. Their report was more comprehensive and broader. The Bureau report focused on irrigation just as the Corps of Engineers focused on navigation but both agencies realized it was easier to obtain funding in Congress for flood control during the present circumstances than for irrigation or navigation. So both plans were modified with this new focus.

After Colonel Pick submitted his report the Bureau Of Reclamation speeded up the study they had been working on for almost 4 years.

The Bureau report was directed by Glen Sloan, who was then the assistant director of the Bureau’s regional office in Billings, Montana, and was submitted to Congress shortly after Colonel Pick submitted the Army Corps of Engineers plan. It was 211 pages long as opposed to the Army Corps of Engineers plan submitted by Colonel Pick which was only 13 pages long.

The Bureau plan impounded nearly as much water as the Army Corps of Engineers proposal but recommended two less main stem dams and many small tributary dams. Sloan proposed three main stem dams in South Dakota but did not propose Gavin’s Point in South Dakota or Garrison in North Dakota, concluding that neither dam was necessary for flood control or irrigation.

At this time there were several other issues which impacted what Washington would do about development of the Missouri River. Pumping up the local economies through providing jobs and other spending as a way to respond to the Depression, such as resulted from building large multipurpose dams like Boulder (later Hoover) and Fort Peck was an accepted view. Also the largest regional newspaper in St. Louis and President Franklin Roosevelt both publicly announced support for the creation of the Missouri Valley Authority (MVA), similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to manage development of the Missouri River. This caused the Army Corps of Engineers And the Bureau of Reclamation to come together and reach a vested interest compromise to keep their respective areas of control over the Missouri River. The two agencies reached a compromise agreement for development of the Missouri River which is commonly described as the Pick-Sloan Plan. The compromise essentially incorporated the proposals of both agencies. The compromise was such a blatant act of bureaucratic job-retention that the then president of the national Farmers Union, James Patton, who also supported the creation of a Missouri Valley Authority, called it a “shameless loveless shotgun wedding.”

Congress incorporated the Pick-Sloan Plan into The Flood Control Act of 1944 and passed it into law.

For the next decades, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation implemented (constructed) the Pick-Sloan Plan . Six main stem dams, more than 20 tributary dams, over 70 million acre-feet of water storage, 41 hydroelectric plants and hundreds of miles of levies were built.

By any measurement, the so-called development of the Missouri River under the Pick-Sloan Plan, including the building of the Garrison dam, was an end of the “ New Deal” boondoggle. The cost of this so-called “development” of the Missouri River in relation to the potential benefits was of so little in importance to Colonel Pick that he didn’t include any financial numbers in his 13-page report to Congress. Most of the navigation channel of the nation had already been completed at the time the report was submitted to Congress. So the economic costs had already been absorbed.

A number of expert evaluations/appraisals of the Missouri River development found the transportation savings that would come from barge traffic would never equal the cost of building the navigation channel and levee. History has shown these earlier evaluator/appraisers were right and barge traffic from Sioux City to the Missouri River mouth has never been very economically important. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that sand and gravel from the Missouri River which they own makes up the great majority of what was hauled by barges from 1998 to 2002. 7.5 million tons of the 8.7 million tons of material transported has been sand and gravel. Commercial tonnage of grain and oilseed, fertilizer, asphalt and cement during this time averaged 673,000 tons and this figure has decreased every year.

After construction had begun on Garrison dam Colonel Pick was interviewed by the local Bismarck newspaper, the Bismarck Tribune, and he called the dam the “kingpin reservoir in the Missouri River development plan.” He said this even though his predecessors at the Army Corps of Engineers had rejected the dam’s proposed site as being unsafe and had to create a new board of consultants to re-examine and authorize the location.

The Garrison Dam is as indefensible as any project built under the Pick-Sloan Plan. It wasn’t even proposed in the 211-page report of the Bureau of Reclamation prepared by Glen Sloan. Only a fraction of the water impounded behind the Garrison Dam is necessary for flood control or the unrealistic irrigation potential expressed by the Bureau of Reclamation. Instead the vast majority of the impounded water was for downstream navigation.

Glen Sloan and the Bureau of Reclamation understood that no matter how much water you pour on poor quality, sem-arid, land it still is poor quality semi-arid land. The Bureau of Reclamation plan was to irrigate better quality sub-humid land most of which was in the James River Valley of South Dakota. This is why all three of the Bureau of Reclamation plan main stem dams were in South Dakota. After Colonel Pick’s Garrison Dam for downstream navigation was included in the final Pick-Sloan plan, North Dakota was said to have between 1 million and 2 million acres of irrigable land. As in South Dakota, the plan was to divert water to better quality sub -humid land. This meant North Dakota diversion would require transporting water many miles east of the Missouri River. Hence Garrison Diversion’s McClusky Canal.

Worst of all is what the building of the Garrison Dam to support the contrived downstream navigation business did to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Colonel Pick built this dam, which at the time was the third-largest reservoir in the United States, and impounded more than 24 million acre-feet of water primarily for the “make-believe” barge traffic in 178-mile lake which was built in the heart of the Fort Berthold Reservation.

Three American Indian tribes reside on this reservation– Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. The United States by Executive Order, signed by the President in 1870, assigned these three tribes a reservation of land which was a portion of their ancestral home that they had lived on since the Middle Age, centuries before the first Europeans came to the area. The reservation was reduced by Executive Order several times as encroachment by Europeans continued. In 1880 their designated land area was reduced to just under 3 million acres. An Executive Order in 1910 reduced the reservation to 640,000 acres, it’s size when the dam was built.

Months before Congress gave final approval to the Corps of Engineers to build Garrison dam and years before the Fort Berthold Tribal Council signed the documents permitting the flooding , Army Corps of Engineers surveyors were at the site to begin the construction of the dam. (Carl Whitman Jr., a later Tribal Council President, would testify to a congressional committee that the dam was “more or less forced on them.”)

The Fort Berthold tribes opposed building the Garrison dam as soon as they found out about it. The Tribal Council passed resolutions, testified before Congress, solicited other political support, held many meetings and engaged in other efforts to oppose the Garrison Dam.

Within the reservation system in the state at the time, Fort Berthold was believed to be one of the most successful. Reverend Harold Case was a preacher for more than 30 years beginning in the 1920s at Fort Berthold. In his living room he told me in his paternalistic and ministerial way that the reservation had no unemployment, virtually no alcohol abuse and very little use of money before the dam. They were also maintaining their cultures within the structure imposed upon them.

156,000-acres, 25% of the reservation, in the heart of the reservation was taken for the dam. Every community, every school, every church, over 80% of the people who lived on the reservation and the prime bottomland in western North Dakota were flooded. The dam reservoir divided the closely knit people into five water-bound segments creating a never-before experienced isolation from each other. A Tribal Council secretary said the dam would be “more destructive than the atom bomb.” Native American author, college teacher and scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., labeled the Pick-Sloan plan the single most destructive act ever perpetrated on any tribe by the United States.

In the beginning, surrounding “white” communities opposed building Garrison Dam. Originally Congress agreed to replace the flooded land with “adequate” replacement land which made many in the surrounding area “white” population nervous that their land might be taken as replacement land but after this possibility was eliminated when Congress realized there was no suitable replacement land. Instead Congress decided the reservation tribes would receive monetary compensation and with that the surrounding white opposition largely evaporated. Eventually a local newspaper, the Minot Daily News editorialized that the flooding for the dam was justified because the dam would provide electricity to all the farmers of North Dakota and would help create industrial centers and promised to irrigate over a million acres of North Dakota farmland.

As building the dam was marching towards inevitability, the Tribal Council’s attorney hired a civil engineering firm to find an alternative site for the dam. The tribe’s civil engineering firm found an alternative location about 40 miles northwest of the Army Corps of Engineers site. It would not flood the heart of the reservation, would generate the same amount of electricity at a cheaper rate, and would impound sufficient water for irrigation and flood control as identified as necessary by the Bureau of Reclamation. The reservation proposed Fort Berthold Dam however did not impound water for downstream navigation. The reservation offered the land for free.

Although he was willing to reduce the height of dam and thereby reduce the size of the water in the lake without congressional authorization to keep any part of Williston from being flooded in years of excess runoff, Colonel Pick would give no consideration to the Fort Berthold dam. He simply was too ardent of a downstream navigation supporter. He said “in no way, shape or form will it substitute for the multi-purposes at Garrison. I am convinced it would not be a project that we could justify or that I would recommend.”

in a final act of surrealism, after forcing the dam on the three Fort Berthold tribes the two North Dakota U.S. Senators had a bill passed in the Senate that named the lake behind Garrison Dam after a well-known Indian from Fort Berthold.

Virtually everyone who writes about the Pick-Sloan plan development of the Missouri River says it resulted in an equitable benefits to the lower basin and did almost nothing about irrigation for the upper basin states. I frequently hear talk around here about how little sense the downstream barge industry makes. However, people almost never talk about the unrealistic if not absurd position of the upper basin states with regard to irrigation.

It turns out upper basin irrigation was no less impractical, unreasonable and unjustified as downstream navigation. The days of Washington support for large irrigation projects in the West had come and gone. The Bureau of Reclamation and no one else paid much attention to the short and long-term environmental consequences not to mention the cost of any substantial diversion of water for irrigation. Irrigated acreage in the upper basin states has increased only slightly since the Pick-Sloan plan received congressional approval. A writer has pointed out one of the great ironies of the history of Pick-Sloan is that although Pick-Sloan was adopted in large part to promote irrigation, irrigated agriculture now consumes a smaller percentage of depleted surface water than it did in 1944 when the main stem dams were built.

Now, 64 years after the flooding in the lower basin states, which Congress used to hold hearings and have Colonel Pick submit a proposal to develop the Missouri River, six massive main stem dams have been built on the Missouri River. The dams were built on locations that for the most part flooded reservation land. They were built primarily to support downstream navigation which essentially is hauling of sand and gravel and diminishing commercial hauling. Hundreds of thousands of tons of silt which formally flowed down the Missouri River is now deposited behind the dams. The breadth of environmental consequences from the dams is just now coming to light. Little benefit from irrigation has come to the upper basin states. No one really knows how many billions of dollars have been spent on all of this.

In the middle of the Pick-Sloan plan is Colonel Pick’s jewel, Garrison Dam, which was built to advance Pick’s commitment to downstream navigation and was never even included in the Bureau of Reclamation unrealistic notions of upper basin irrigation. It was built at a location that destroyed a culture and existence of the three tribes at Fort Berthold. Almost all that can be said is that it is there, like it or not, and we simply can’t drain it. So now the dam’s major benefit is that white people can boat and catch walleye over the communities, schools, churches and burial grounds of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara.

When speaking of the Pick-Sloan plan Chief Justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court Gerald VanderWalle said “you want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt ,” but “I’m afraid it’s all been one huge scam, an economic and environmental disaster from beginning to end.”

Post Script
This project took a lot longer than I thought it would take. Sorry. For those of you who want to read more or read the material I read to challenge something I said, e-mail me for a bibliography.

  1. Captivating, I passed this on to a aide of mine, and he actually bought me lunch because I found this for him, so let me rephrase: Thanks for lunch.

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