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Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters

The Pick-Sloan Plan

The Pick-Sloan Plan

At the same time Congress began deliberating over the Pick and Sloan plans, a third option emerged. President Franklin Roosevelt favored the creation of a Missouri River Authority, a federally-owned company which would have been similar in scope to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Both the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation disliked the idea of a third party encroaching on their territories. Consequently, the two agencies set aside their differences and combined efforts to create what became known as the Pick-Sloan Plan.

Congress approved the Pick-Sloan Plan as part of the Flood Control Act of 1944. President Roosevelt signed the bill into law on December 22 of that year. Initial funding provided $400 million for dams, irrigation projects, hydroelectric generating stations, and levees.

1947 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map of Pick-SLoan Projects

A 1947 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map of Pick-Sloan projects. Image source: The Federal Engineer, Damsites to Missile Sites: History of the Omaha District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. United States Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, 1985, p. 72-3. View Source

Benefits of Pick-Sloan

Construction began on the first Pick-Sloan project in 1946. The crown jewels of the plan were the building of five large dams and reservoirs in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Pick-Sloan projects have saved billions of dollars in flood damage since the 1950s. The large reservoir storage capacities in in the upper river basin have been particularly important in mitigating flood damage in large urban areas downstream.

The Pick-Sloan projects have also irrigated over three million acres of land and have provided 2.5 million kilowatts of power generation capacity. An added benefit of the construction projects has been recreational opportunities. Each year, thousands of people enjoy hiking, camping, boating, and fishing on the reservoirs.

Photo of Gavin Point Dam on the Missouri River at the South Dakota and Nebraska border

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo of Gavin Point Dam on the Missouri River at the South Dakota and Nebraska border. Image source: The Federal Engineer, Damsites to Missile Sites: History of the Omaha District. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, 1985, p. 145. View Source

Lost Land

While most people welcomed the Pick-Sloan Plan, constructions of dams in the upper Missouri River Basin flooded ancestral land on several Indian Reservations, resulting in decades of litigation over just compensation and water rights.

The first Native Americans in the path of Pick-Sloan were the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. In 1948, they saw 156,000 acres (over 90 percent) of their best farmland flooded when the Garrison Dam project created Lake Sakakawea. The tribe also had to relocate 80 percent of their families to new communities. In total, over 550 square miles of Native American land was taken during the building of dams as part of the Pick-Sloan Plan.

George Gillette, a council member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, becomes emotional as Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug signs the contract in 1948 transferring the tribes’ land to the government for the Garrison Dam project. Image source: Associated Press photo in Lambrecht, Bill. Big Muddy Blues: True Tales and Twisted Politics Along Lewis and Clark’s Missouri River. St. Martin’s Press, 2005, p. 171. View Source
Map of American Indian Reservations

Image source: Ferrell, John. Big Dam Era: A Legislative and Institutional History of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1993, p. 168. View Source

Environmental Impact

The Pick-Sloan goals of flood reduction, navigation improvement, and hydroelectric power generation have often come in conflict with wildlife protection. Dams and channel reconfigurations along the upper Missouri River Basin have either altered or destroyed much of the original habitat.

The Pallid Sturgeon, Least Tern, and Piping Plover are examples of species that have become federally-protected due to this ecosystem disruption along the river. For example, dams have prevented the once free-flowing river from creating naturally occurring sandbars, which is the Piping Plover’s nesting habitat.

In recent years, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have instituted a Missouri River Recovery Program to restore lost habitat. The Corps uses dredging and modifying river flows to create or restore sandbars, shallow water habitat, and wetlands.

Photo of a bird nesting on a sandbar

Piping Plover nesting on a sandbar. Image source: Photo by Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr., in Wetmore, Alexander, et al. Water, Prey and Game Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, 1965, p. 319. View Source