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Chet Brokaw, Associated Press, Published August 17 2012

Ceremony marks 50 years since JFK dedicated Oahe Dam

PIERRE, S.D. — Exactly 50 years after President John F. Kennedy dedicated the Oahe Dam, several hundred people gathered at the same spot Friday to marvel at how much the massive dam has changed life along the Missouri River.

Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill said the dam and its reservoir flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of good farm land, but it has also helped prevent devastating floods, generated electricity, provided fishing and other recreation activities and helped spur growth in Pierre and Fort Pierre just a few miles below the dam.

“It's difficult for me to imagine Pierre and Fort Pierre without the Oahe Project,” Gill said during the one-hour ceremony that was held at the visitor's center atop the dam. Fishing boats moving through the reservoir served as a backdrop.

At least 18 men who worked on the dam's construction attended the ceremony. Former U.S. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who attended the 1962 ceremony, had planned to speak Friday, but was unable to attend because he has a bad cold.

Eric Stasch, operations manager at Oahe Dam, noted that Kennedy said the dam would not only help the Missouri River basin but also boost the nation's economy and security.

“You can hear the message of hope and commitment in JFK's words, and the Oahe Dam was a catalyst for the tapestry of a brighter future he painted that day,” Stasch said.

Oahe Dam is one of the world's largest rolled-earth dams, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the Missouri River dams. The reservoir is 231 miles long with 2,250 miles of shoreline, stretching from the South Dakota capital of Pierre to the North Dakota capital of Bismarck.

Kennedy said in 1962 that the Oahe Dam and the other five built on the Missouri River would reduce flooding, create reservoirs for recreation, generate electricity and provide regulated water for irrigation, drinking and downstream barge traffic. He noted that President Franklin D. Roosevelt took an idea from President Theodore Roosevelt to promote legislation that authorized construction of the Missouri River dams.

“Too often we take for granted these miracles of engineering and milestones in river development. Too often we see no connection between this dam and our nation's prosperity, our national security and our leadership of those nations who cherish their freedom,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy was also prophetic in noting that the water in the river could not meet all demands all the time.

In dry years, upstream states have fought to keep more water in the reservoirs in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota to support fish reproduction and the economics of a huge sport fishing industry. Downstream states have urged higher releases of water to support downstream barge traffic and water supplies for cities and industries.

The dams have mostly prevented the uncontrolled flooding of the past, but extensive flooding occurred last year in the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri because of record releases caused by a deep mountain and prairie snowpack and heavy spring rains in the upper basin.

However, Stasch and others noted last year's flooding would have been much worse without the dams.

Pierre lawyer Jamie Damon said at Friday's ceremony that she got Kennedy to come to South Dakota because of a fourth-grade project, in which each student had to write a letter to someone. She invited the president to dedicate the dam, which her father helped build as a bulldozer operator.

“I wanted the president to come to Pierre to see the dam my dad built. While I knew other people worked on it, I was 9. My dad built it,” she said.

Russ Nyhaug, 84, of Baltic, said the ceremony brought back memories of his work as a mechanic on the tunnels that deliver water to the power generators.

“It feels good to be a part of something like this. There was a lot a lot of hard work, but there was a lot of fun, too,” Nyhaug said.


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