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Garrison Dam, Day 2: 'A bitter chapter', State awaits proper due for generations of sacrifice

The power and promise of an entire nation seemed reflected on the shimmering water as President Eisenhower smiled and waved from a dedicating platform.

The power and promise of an entire nation seemed reflected on the shimmering water as President Eisenhower smiled and waved from a dedicating platform.

Thousands gathered that day under a warm sun near Riverdale, N.D., when Ike christened Garrison Dam, the first of five giant earthen dams on the Missouri River authorized under the Flood Control Act of 1944.

It happened 50 years ago, on June 11, 1953, when America was at war in Korea, yet eager to harness the Mighty Missouri to generate electricity for homes and factories and to float barges filled with grain through the heartland.

In fact, the president proudly noted that requests for hydropower generated by Garrison -- enough to light 216,666 homes a year -- already had exceeded the capacity of its five generators.

The crowd applauded when Eisenhower proclaimed, "Garrison Dam was built with the people's money, and its benefits shall go to the people."


As North Dakotans would learn, however, the benefits mainly went far downstream from Riverdale. The anniversary represents a bittersweet observance for North Dakota, which made huge land sacrifices for Garrison and its reservoir, largely to protect cities in downstream states from flooding.

In return, the state was promised massive irrigation benefits -- more than 1 million acres originally were planned -- and the diversion of ample water to the Red River Valley to satisfy the growing thirsts of people and industry during the post-World War II boom.

Five decades later, though, North Dakotans still wait for what generations of political and business leaders say is the state's proper due for its contributions.

"It's a bitter chapter, I'd say, in North Dakota history," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "We paid an enormous price to protect downstream states from flooding. What North Dakota was promised, it's fair to say, has never been received."

But that cloudy assessment comes with hard-earned hindsight. On that sunny day half a century ago, when Ike beamed from behind the lectern, he predicted future generations would take colossal accomplishments like Garrison for granted.

"The improvements in our cultivation, the improvements in control of the floods that are now so destructive, will then probably seem commonplace," Eisenhower told the enthusiastic crowd. "They will accept them as a part of their lives. They will no longer question the usefulness of these great dams."

Maybe so, in places like Sioux City, Omaha and Kansas City, which Garrison helps protect from catastrophic floods, and which benefit from Missouri flows calibrated for barge traffic. Severe killer floods in those places in 1943 caused massive property damage, which gave the impetus for building the dams.

But questions still wear away at people living near places like Elbowoods and Sanish, forgotten Atlantises on the North Dakota prairie submerged by a permanent man-made flood.


Reservoirs from Garrison and Oahe Dam, located near Pierre, S.D., which backed up water almost to Bismarck, consumed 569,000 acres -- drowning thousands of acres of prime bottomland, the state's best winter cattle range and a fifth of its wooded lands.

Source of jobs

Bud Boots wasn't able to attend the dedication. For him, June 11, 1953, was a welcome work holiday from helping to build Garrison, still under construction in spite of the ceremony, which celebrated the closure of the dam several weeks before.

As he drove to an errand in the nearby town of Garrison, Boots saw soldiers posted at crossroads, apparently standing by to control traffic for the long motorcade of dignitaries who accompanied Eisenhower from Minot to Riverdale. The town, 75 miles upstream from Bismarck, saw its population peak at 4,000. It was built three years earlier on a bluff east of the river to house dam workers and their families.

Boots grew up just 10 miles from the dam. His father's farm lost half a section of land, 320 acres, devoured by the newly created reservoir, Lake Sakakawea. That loss -- his family received only $17 an acre for one quarter of land -- discouraged Boots from taking up farming after he came home in 1946 from a tour of Army service in the Philippines and Japan.

"You didn't disagree with the government," Boots said. "They were the almighty then."

But for Boots and hundreds of other men back from the war, the dam bestowed a steady paycheck to support a family. He held a series of jobs, beginning as a laborer mining tunnels, then as a mechanic in the machine shop. Once the dam structures were completed, he stayed on to work as an electrician and powerhouse operator.

"The fallout was it gave me a lifetime of work," Boots said. Now retired 17 years, he recalls most vividly the choreographed hubbub of so many men and machines toiling to build an earthen dam 25 times bigger than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.


"The busy, busy, busy of it," Boots said, grasping for the words to capture those heady years. "It was mind-boggling at times."

Boots and his wife still live in Riverdale, now a quiet burg of 273, just a speck of what it was in its boom years, but a sport-fishing and boating haven.

'Pitiful pennies' paid

Bernice Houser's father was an early settler in Sanish, a tiny farming town along the Missouri known for its summer rodeo celebration.

He ran a bulk oil delivery business and hauled fuel to farmers and ranchers -- until the town was forced to move behind Garrison Dam by the creeping floodwaters.

"Everything you thought was great was going under the water, the big trees, the park," she said.

Still, the impact was mostly indirect for Houser, who was 23 years old in 1953 and recently married to her husband. They had moved to a farm miles away from the reservoir.

It was much more difficult for her parents and others who had built their lives in Sanish. They had to decide whether to become part of nearby New Town, then being built to replace towns lost to the reservoir, or to move to a new, relocated Sanish, on higher ground.


Houser's parents and other landowners received "pitiful pennies on the dollar" from the federal government for their land, she said. "The best part of their lives was under water."

They would drive the country roads to watch the water's gradual rise. Roads disappeared in the water, their dead ends making ideal boat ramps.

"It made good fishing," she said. "You had a lot of access because of all the roads sticking in."

At first, the submerged cottonwoods still had leaves where their heads poked above the water. The trees gradually became wood skeletons, with herons and cormorants nesting in the crotches of their dead limbs.

"You could have a big bonfire anywhere on shore for years and years and years," Houser said. "There were a lot of logs, that's for sure."

Every now and then, when the mood strikes her, Houser drives to a scenic overlook on a bluff to peer down at the site of old Sanish, now partly exposed along the shore. The long western drought has parched Lake Sakakawea, down almost 23 feet from its normal level.

The crumbling foundation of the old grain elevator juts out of a muddy sandbar, across from where her father's business once stood. Now, like the rest of old Sanish, it's just a fading memory.

'Shotgun wedding'


Garrison Dam, a sloped embankment 2½ miles long, is so vast and so much a part of the landscape that Brian Keith Russell didn't realize he was driving on top of it when he went looking for the subject of his research project.

North Dakota's Highway 200 spans the embankment's flat crest. It's the world's fifth-largest earthen dam, a half-mile wide at its base and 210 feet from top to bottom.

Russell, a native of Alaska, was a candidate for a master's degree in history at the University of North Dakota in 1999 and 2000. His adviser urged him to see the dam to help him grasp its magnitude.

Even more impressive than the dam is what it created: Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir 178 miles long and covering 368,000 acres -- enough water at normal elevation to soak the whole state of North Dakota six inches deep.

In satellite images from space, the artificial lake looks like an irregular ink stain in the folds of a crumpled-towel of grassland -- the largest reservoir built by the Corps of Engineers in the United States.

Lake Sakakawea alone accounts for a third of the water storage capacity of the six Missouri River dams.

Despite its immensity, Russell was surprised to learn in his research that one of the co-authors of the Missouri River flood control plan hadn't even thought to include it in his draft. The Bureau of Reclamation's Glenn Sloan concluded that the other five dams -- one in Montana, the rest in South Dakota -- were adequate to control floods.

Nonetheless, Garrison was included in the "shotgun wedding" compromise that blended Sloan's ideas with a rival plan by Lt. Gen. Lewis Pick of the Corps of Engineers.


Garrison's big payoff was to be the hydropower and especially the mammoth irrigation projects it enabled: 1,007,000 acres of cropland, mostly far away in northern and eastern North Dakota, that were to be watered by 6,773 miles of canals.

But after Garrison was completed in 1957, economic and later environmental questions about the feasibility of diverting water for massive irrigation began to surface. In 1965, Congress authorized only 250,000 acres of irrigation. That shrank to 130,000 acres in a 1986 reauthorization of the Garrison Diversion Project, now reduced to 70,360 acres.

Despite mounting criticism, including protests from Canada and Minnesota over worries of transferring Missouri River plant and fish species to the Red River Valley, work on canals and pumping stations went on until halted in 1984.

Meanwhile, scores of North Dakota farmers and ranchers were forced to sell land for canals and other water works -- 220,000 acres, by one estimate -- in addition to the 569,000 acres devoured by the reservoirs.

'Dots on a map'

One of those farmers was Ben Schatz, whose farm was to be split into three pieces by the McClusky Canal in central North Dakota, requiring him to reduce his cattle herd by a third.

When Schatz complained about the hardships the canal would cause, a bureaucrat from the Bureau of Reclamation wasn't sympathetic. "To us, you're just a dot on the map," Schatz told a reporter in 1972, quoting the official. "When you get in the way, we move you."

Those dots on the map add up: Agricultural economists at North Dakota State University calculated in 1978 that the state suffered annual agricultural losses of $127 million in gross business volume and personal income from land lost to the reservoirs. In 2002 dollars, that's a loss of $350 million a year.

North Dakota has received more than $614 million in federal water appropriations since Garrison Dam was built. More than 100,000 residents have been provided with drinking water since the diversion project began emphasizing municipal water delivery in the late 1980s.

Most of that drinking water has been provided by pipeline networks serving small towns and rural water systems in the northwestern and southwestern corners of the state.

The Corps of Engineers estimates the state receives $130 million a year in flood control, cheap hydropower and recreation benefits. Conrad and others maintain, however, that those paybacks are paltry compared to the costs borne by the state's residents.

"The benefits North Dakota has received have been minimal," Russell said. "It's a beautiful place today," he added, referring to Lake Sakakawea, "but it hasn't brought the tourist dollars that were expected."

Ultimately, two long stretches of canals were built, but they remain separated by a gap of 22 miles, and deliver water mainly to a few wildlife refuges. As far as Russell could determine, only 9,000 acres irrigated acres of farmland can be attributed to what started as the Pick-Sloan Plan.

After a pause, he added: "The whole cost-benefit ratio of Garrison Dam -- it was just not needed, but they built it anyway."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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