Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cheyenne River Tribe Says Oahe Dam Has Caused Problems For Decades

Tater Ward

  A massive federal project designed to prevent flooding along the Missouri River is creating problems in South Dakota. Some tribal officials say the series of dams built in the 1950s have created problems for farmers and on reservation land. In fact, some tribes are still struggling to find a solution.

It’s an early morning school bus run near the Oahe Dam. The driver makes dozens of stops along unpaved sections of BIA Route 3. The 45 minute bus ride is one way kids get to Tiospaye Topa School on the Cheyenne River Reservation. 

Thirteen year old Angelle Miner has been taking the bus for about seven years.

“Some of our roads have been flooded and our dams go in. Our roads are kind of bad.” 

BIA Route 3 runs along part of the Moreau River. When chunks of winter ice melt mix with heavy spring rainfalls, the water can rise by 20 foot and run over the gravel road.


Sometimes flood water makes potholes in gravel sections, and in other places it carves out chunks of pavement and can wear down culverts.


Tracey Zephier is the Attorney General for the Cheyenne River Tribe.

“Floods that would have only occurs once every hundred years-catastrophic floods-are now occurring every 10 years.”

Zephier says there are smaller floods almost every year. And she attributes some of the flooding to the Oahe Dam. 

In the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers installed several dams in the region as part of the Missouri River Flood Control Project. The dams prevent flooding in downstream states and create hydropower. Zephier says the Oahe Dam and a bridge that crosses the Moreau River, 

are causing problems. 

“Now because of the short bridge and the dam and the sediment building up, when it does flood it’s leaving literally feet of sediment on what what was formally productive range land and farm land and it’s making it completely unusable.” 

Credit Tater Ward

In the middle of the river, there is a large island from flood sediment that’s piled high with vegetation. Along that stretch, the river bank has weakened. The result has eroded parts of  BIA Route 3 for years. 

Zephier says the tribe has been telling the federal government about the problems since the dam was installed. When she argues that the Army Corps should be responsible for removing the sediment... 

“They’re response is well we don't have funds to do that. So if you want this done you’re going to have to go to Congress and have them appropriate us funds to do that. Otherwise we can’t to it.” 

Zephier says the flooding will get worse if sediment continues to collect. 

The Cheyanne River Tribe filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the matter in 2003. The government offered to settle, but the tribe has refused because it wants a solution, not one-time financial compensation. 

Mike Glasch is the Deputy Director of Public Affairs for the Omaha District of the Army Corps of Engineers. He says he can’t comment specifically on an issue that’s under litigation, but he says the Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for fixing BIA roads. 

“We have worked with BIA to get inspections of the bridges and to open them if they were deemed safe and that has happened. Bridges were opened.” 

The BIA did not respond to requests for an interview for this story. Glasch says it is the Army Corp’s job to clear out sediment buildup when it is caused by a federal project, such as the Oahe Dam. 

“I’m not aware of any causation between the dam and sediment build up. That has not been proven.” 

The Government Accountability Office has been studying the impact of the Missouri River Flood Control Project since the 1990s. A study acknowledges that dams along the river created reservoirs that permanently flooded 350-thousand acres and affected the land of seven tribes in the region. The federal study does not specifically link sediment build up on the Cheyenne River Reservation to the Oahe Dam. But it does say permanent flooding caused loss of land, resources and structures.

Michael Lawson is a historian who has researched this topic since the 70’s. He wrote a book  that follows the effect of the Missouri River dams on tribes. 

“I know the Corps has a problem, I don’t know how they can solve the problem.” 

Lawson doesn't think the Army Corps of Engineers anticipated this much flooding and sediment build up when it designed and built the Oahe Dam. He says back when it was approved, environmental impact statements weren’t required. He doubts the plans would satisfy today’s environmental standards. 

“There would have been models for, well yes you’re going to have filtration. That's a natural part of dam construction. You’re going to upset the ecosystem existing. There’s going to be some species of wildlife that are going to be impacted. And certainly there would have been a great cultural impact on the tribes. You’re destroying cultural and religious sites.” 

Reservoirs along the Missouri have also affected farmland outside the reservations. Lawson says he’s heard some farmers and ranchers had to relocate.

Credit Chynna Lockett

Lawson says tribes were included in the original negotiations for the project, but they didn’t get as much final say about construction on their land as the federal government. 

Harold Frazier is the Cheyenne River Tribal Chairman. He says the tribe doesn't have enough money to maintain BIA roads or do emergency repairs. He says there’s no way they could fix larger infrastructure projects like the dam without federal aid. 

“What’s really sad is that a lot of our people have lived along that river since the beginning of time and it’s just going to be unfortunate if they have to move out of there.”  

The tribe has asked for emergency funding and continues to apply for federal programs to fix BIA roads. Chairman Frazier says the tribe has an infrastructure problem that needs a permanent solution.