Historical Vignette: The Pick-Sloan Plan

Published July 21, 2015

Pick-Sloan Plan for Missouri River Basin. Graphic restoration by Al Barrus

On wartime Saturday nights , the bar at Omaha's reigning hostelry, the Fontenelle on Dodge Street, filled with young lieutenants and captains. There they met the young women of Omaha, danced to the music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, drank, and talked. As the aviators left the hostel on the last Saturday of March 1943, they walked out into an unusually warm night. The rapidly melting snow splashed droplets of dirty water on their uniforms. Within a month, the same snowmelt caused eight of the Missouri 's tributaries to spillover their banks. The main stem itself flooded between Pierre and Rulo. A total of 700,000 acres was submerged; damages amounted to almost $8 million.

The Missouri went wild, as it had done many times before. Between May 6 and May 11, the rains came. Another downpour drenched the basin from May 15 to May 20. Once more, the Missouri went out of its banks and flooded 540,000 acres. Then another 9 days of rain caused the Missouri to rise and inundate 1,240,000 acres, many of which had been underwater only days before. The estimated damages amounted to $32 million. The floods interrupted training, interfered with wartime production, and ruined crops needed by American allies overseas. The combined freshets, known as the "Flood of '43, " had a long-term impact on the Missouri basin. The flood became a catalyst in markedly changing the mission and program of the Omaha District.

Colonel Lewis A. Pick's concerns as Missouri River Division (MRD) Engineer included the rising flood. A graduate of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1917, Pick was a 26-year veteran of the Corps of Engineers. He had been the New Orleans District Engineer just after the record-breaking Mississippi River floods of 1927 and had served as Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover's engineer assistant on the Relief Commission to the stricken area. As Division Engineer, Pick directed the enormous military construction program in the Missouri River basin and developed his proposal for Missouri River control and postwar development.

Following the 1943 flood, lower basin interests asked the House Flood Control Committee to hold a special May meeting. Pick described the damages caused by the new flooding. His appearance and the requests of local interests caused committee members to pass a resolution directing the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors to review previous planning reports on the Missouri. The Board was to identify necessary modifications to the main stem flood control program. The Committee limited the review to flood control only from Sioux City to the river's mouth.

High water from the Flood of '43 near Bismark, ND.

Following normal Corps procedures, the Board assigned the review to MRD. Pick and Colonel R. E. M. Des Islets in Kansas City and Colonel Ole Hoaas at 1709 Jackson reviewed the "308" reports, hydrographic surveys, and data compiled by other agencies. The Corps conducted three public hearings, and Pick discussed the review study before the Flood Control Committee in June 1943. He completed his report on August 10, less than 3 months after receiving the job.

Rather than limiting his review to a flood control program, Pick exceeded his assignment and considered many factors related to the Missouri. Previous river development in the valley had been oriented toward specific projects rather than a broad program. His dramatic 13-page proposal shifted the emphasis from single-purpose to multiple-purpose concepts. Pick's plan envisioned a vastly expanded Federal water policy in the basin. It also went far beyond the Flood Control Committee's request for a review of the main stem flood control program. Pick recommended that the Corps construct multiple-purpose dams in the Dakotas. These dams would store flood-producing water and use it to provide hydroelectric power, wildlife and recreation facilities, a navigable channel , and irrigation, as well as water for domestic and sanitary needs. He also expected other benefits from the control of floods, including the protection of lives and property and the stabilization and encouragement of economic development. As he later explained, his primary purpose involved the control of surplus water by diverting it " from the wrong to the right place at the right time in the required volume."

In part, Pick intended for his plan to satisfy local interests. For years, they had demanded protection from damaging floods, and they had become discouraged by the apparent futility of controlling floods by levees. Pick contended that "complete protection against all floods of record by levees alone is impracticable." He did believe that previously authorized flood control works, including levees and reservoirs, should be completed as supplements to the dams he proposed above Sioux City.

The plan proposed progressive development. Pick concluded that it would not be feasible to construct all the multiple-purpose units simultaneously. He recommended an orderly four-phase approach as circumstances and funds permitted. The main stem projects were to be built, operated, and maintained by the Corps of Engineers. The Corps would arrange with other agencies for use of the water stored in the reservoirs after provision of sufficient storage for flood protection . Similarly, details of the plan would be formulated in cooperation with other Federal agencies and local interests. Specifically, the amount of water to be made available to the Bureau of Reclamation for irrigation would be determined "after close collaboration with that agency." Power development would be planned with the Federal Power Commission. Because the Pick plan was only a framework, lacking details until coordinated with other interested entities, it did not include a realistic evaluation of costs and benefits. The projects that Pick proposed are described in table 1.

Projects Proposed by Pick

There was considerable uncertainty regarding future development in the basin, with or without the Pick plan. The Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors agreed with Pick that retention of surplus waters for a variety of uses would benefit the basin. The Board also accepted his position on the impracticability of a detailed monetary estimate of benefits. There was consensus on the magnitude of the flood problem, the need for more protection, the legitimacy of large expenditures, and the soundness of Pick's proposal. The Board recommended expansion of the authorized program to include Pick's plan.

Two of the Federal agencies affected by the Corps' proposals supported the Pick plan. The Department of Agriculture saw the plan as a constructive approach to water use in the basin and promised its cooperation. Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds saw the plan as a basis for resolving conflicts of interest through additional storage reservoirs.

Commissioner Harry W. Bashore of the Bureau of Reclamation was less willing to accept Pick 's assessment and the dominant position of the Corps on the river. He wrote a detailed respon se to Pick's plan, emphasizing his "governing principles" of water management, the extent of the Bureau's interests in the Missouri basin, and the importance of integrating the work of the agencies into a truly comprehensive plan. His governing principles centered on the concept of the agency with the ''dominant interest" in a multiple-purpose project controlling the project after consultation with other agencies.

The Bureau of Reclamation contended that the waters of the Missouri River and its tributaries west of or entering above Sioux City were more useful to more people if utilized for domestic, agricultural, and industrial purposes rather than for navigation improvement purposes. Bashore criticized specific projects in the Corps' plan, including dams on the Yellowstone, the proposed reservoir at Garrison, and plans for diversions into the Dakotas. He applauded the open-ended call for possible changes in the number and size of the proposed main stem dams.

On 31 December 1943, the Chief of Engineers, Major General Eugene Reybold, sent the Missouri River development plan, along with review comments from the concerned Federal agencies and his own approval, to the Flood Control Committee. He noted that representatives of the agencies had conferred in Washington . Based on these talks, he thought it was evident that accomplishment of the development plan depended on the coordinated efforts of Federal, State, and local governments. Reybold emphasized the framework nature of the plan and the necessity of flexibility to meet "changed conditions that may arise in the future."

Reybold accepted Bashore's contention that the dominant interest should be considered in the construction and management of specific projects. Nevertheless, he thought achievement of maximum flood control required that the Corps build, operate, and maintain the main stem dams; prescribe the flood control storage pools of the multiple-purpose reservoirs on tributaries; and coordinate reservoir operations in the entire basin. Reybold contended that the location, size, and amount of storage behind the main stem dams were of "vital importance to the ultimate development of the entire basin." He supported the flexible Pick plan, acknowledging the probable necessity of modifying the development program and the construction of additional reservoirs on the tributaries by the Bureau.

Projects Proposed by Sloan

Although Pick's proposal covered a number of water resource questions, it did not examine the relationship between the proposed flood control plan, the upstream uses of water, and the 9-foot channel project between Sioux City and the mouth that was under consideration by another congressional committee. The Flood Control Committee had assigned the Corps to review and report on flood control below Sioux City. Pick had done that in a dramatic manner and in doing so had opened many related water development issues confronting the basin, Congress, and the President.

The broad issues implicit in the Pick plan disturbed Bureau of the Budget Director Harold D. Smith. He wanted details on proposed benefits and costs, estimates of appropriations from the Department of Agriculture regarding supplemental land use treatment programs, and further consideration of potential development of hydroelectric power. Smith asked Congress to defer action on the Pick plan until submission of a report by the Bureau of Reclamation, which he expected by 1 May 1944. He was concerned about the inability of the Bureau of the Budget to determine a realistic cost for water and land resource improvements in the basin before reviewing the plans of the concerned departments.

Other interests in the Missouri basin also wanted to delay action on the Pick plan. Governors from upriver states knew that the Bureau of Reclamation was working on a report concerning development of irrigation and power. These uses were more important upstream than flood control and navigation. To obtain consideration for the Bureau's plan, supporters felt they had to slow the evaluation of the Corps' plan. Governors Lester C. Hunt of Wyoming, Sam C. Ford of Montana, and John Moses of North Dakota asked the Flood Control Committee to delay consideration of the Pick plan . Then they appealed to the House Committee on Rivers and Harbors, which was considering the 9-foot channel provision in the omnibus rivers and harbors bil1.

Upstream interests feared there would be too little water for the 9-foot channel and the expansion of irrigation. The new 9-foot channel provision was based on a demand of 32,000 cubic feet per second (c.f.s.) for navigation. The Governors pointed out that the average flow for the past 14 years at Kansas City had been only 37,600 c.f.s. The excess was inadequate for the other competing needs.

The House Flood Control Committee acknowledged that concessions to the upstream states would be judicious. The Committee recommended that no new demands be made on the river's water by the pending legislation and that some proposed main stem storage be transferred to the tributaries with the Corps' approval. The bill was reported favorably, with a request that the Pick plan be included in the omnibus flood control bill.

The House approved the two bills. The rivers and harbors bill (H.R. 3961), with the 9-foot channel provision, passed on 22 March 1944. The flood control bill (H.R. 4485), with the Pick plan, passed on May 9. Upstream interests shifted the focus of their activities to the Senate where the political balance was more favorable because the Senators from the Western States traditionally voted as a bloc on water matters.

In the Senate , Wyoming's Joseph C. O'Mahoney chaired a subcommittee concentrating on national economic planning for the postwar period. "America is determined," he said, "that our returning soldiers must not face the 'apple economy' that greeted them after the last war. " O'Mahoney was a prominent New Deal Democrat with considerable seniority in the majority party. He belonged to the bloc of western supporters of irrigation. On 5 May 1944, 4 days before the House passed the Pick plan, he presented the Senate with the Bureau of Reclamation's proposal for development of the Missouri.

In the making since 1939, the Bureau's report carried the name of William G. Sloan, Assistant Director of the Region 6 office in Billings, Montana. Like Pick, Sloan had served with the Army Corps of Engineers during World War I. Before the war, he had managed the Department of Agriculture's drainage investigations in Wyoming and Montana. Afterward, he practiced as a private engineer in Boise, Idaho, and, from 1932 to 1936, as special engineer to the Twin Falls Canal Company in Idaho. He joined the Bureau in 1936.

After passage of the 1939 Reclamation Act, Sloan was assigned to prepare a basinwide water resources development plan, as presented in table 2. All beneficial uses of water were to be taken into account in the formulation of a plan most likely to yield " the greatest good to the greatest number of people." Sloan's plan had been in preparation about 5 years when the Pick plan accelerated its completion.

William G. Sloan, Assistant Director, Region 6, Bureau of Reclamation, Billings, Montana, and Colonel Lewis A. Pick, Missouri River Division Engineer, coauthors of the Pick-Sloan Plan

The Bureau's report assumed that farming would remain the primary basis of the basin's economy. At the time, the area under study contained over 4 million irrigated acres, about 12.5 percent of those acres in Federal projects. Most of the acreage was in the upper basin west of the 100th meridian. There was practically no irrigated land in the eastern half of the basin, except along the Platte River in Nebraska. The Bureau recommended doubling the irrigated land; 4,760,000 new acres would receive full treatment and another 547,000 acres would receive supplementary water. Seventeen powerplants would generate 4 billion kilowatt-hours annually. The decline of population would stop, the tax base would expand, and prosperity and stability would prevail.

The Sloan plan was rooted in the tradition of the National Reclamation Program. Founded in 1902, the Bureau of Reclamation reported to the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Power Development in 1944. The statutory purpose of the agency was to provide for the conservation, development, and use of water and land resources in the 17 Western States.

The initial intent was to benefit family farms through a Reclamation Fund financed by the sale of public lands in the Western States. The Secretary of the Interior was to use the fund to construct projects to irrigate new farmland available for purchase by private owners. From this base, the Bureau progressed rapidly toward multiple-purpose development.

Like the Corps, the Bureau reported to Congress. However, the Bureau did not depend on Congress for initiation of planning, project authorization, or, initially, even appropriations. The 1902 law made a member of the President's Cabinet responsible for determining the location and priority of prospective projects and for planning and constructing them. This was a substantial procedural difference from the relationship of the Executive and Congress in Corps programs.

Until financial difficulties hampered its programs, the Bureau considered the Reclamation Fund as sufficient "appropriation." When other sources of money were sought, the Bureau 's leadership recognized the value of hydroelectricity as a product of its dams. Starting with the Imperial Valley irrigation project, approved in the Boulder Canyon Dam Act of 1928, hydroelectric power became the key to a successful extension of Federal reclamation. The Bureau committed itself to maximum power development as part of each new reclamation project, exploited fully the hydroelectric potential of reclamation works, and adopted a multiple-purpose approach.

In 1943, the Bureau directed its concern to stabilization of the population and economy in areas that suffered periodically from drought, recommended large multiple-purpose projects, and expanded its area of interest downstream. The Corps shifted its 80 emphasis from navigation to flood control, recommended multiple-purpose projects, and placed emphasis on upstream control measures. Each of the agencies developed independent ideologies based on its history and jurisdiction, as well as the interests of its own geographical clientele. The plans of Pick and Sloan engaged the Corps and Bureau in direct competition.

In the basin, the Corps and Bureau plans were "second only to the war in general public interest" during the fall of 1944. Depression , drought, and flooding had made deep impressions on the region . People wanted Federal help, general planning, and specific project proposals-the things promised in both plans.

The fate of the two plans rested with congressional committees that weighed the alternatives and essentially decided on future development. Congress wanted a plan that provided the maximum benefit to the greatest number of people over the longest period. Even though the chairmen of the key committees tried to meet the lofty objective, their subjective perceptions were still critical. Representative Will M. Whittington of Mississippi and Louisiana Senator John H. Overton were both southern Democrats and supporters of the Corps of Engineers. Pick's upper Missouri reservoirs could contribute to flood control in their home states, and Whittington considered flood control to be the "dominant interest" in the Missouri River basin.

Open spillway gates at Big Bend Dam

Overton and Whittington were both experts in and advocates of flood control and rivers and harbors legislation. On the other side, Senator O'Mahoney headed support for the Bureau's development proposal. He sought statutory assurance of the priority of irrigation in states west of the 98th meridian, where annual moisture averaged less than 20 inches a year.

O'Mahoney emphasized the dichotomy on the Missouri between the semiarid upper basin and the water-abundant lower basin. To protect their interests, upper basin advocates wanted a guarantee that State Governors and Bureau officials could review and comment on Corps projects that might infringe on their water use. O'Mahoney sought to achieve this through amendments to the pending bills for the 9-foot channel and the Pick plan.

Senator Overton chaired the Commerce Subcommittee that considered both bills. The subcommittee reported favorably on the channel improvement project without reference to the O'Mahoney amendments. The next month, when Overton's group considered the flood control bill containing the Pick plan, the amendments were again rejected. The Commerce Committee considered them redundant and possibly unconstitutional. Moreover, the amendments proposed changes in water use policy beyond the jurisdiction of the Committee.

O'Mahoney publicly deplored the fragmented subcommittee approach to Missouri River legislation. He said it was "time we legislated by river basins, not by projects." Yet, he vowed to continue seeking laws specifying the primary rights of people west of the 98th meridian to water flowing through their region.

Upper river advocates were more concerned with a threat even greater than the Pick plan and the navigation project. Missouri Valley Authority (MVA) bills were introduced in Congress between August 1944 and February 1945. Their passage would delay project funding, change the Sloan plan, and alter the relationship between the special interests and the Bureau.

The MVA threatened the access of water activists to the legislative process. It would shift power from Congress to the Presidency on river issues. A regional development authority would have contractual and other broad powers. Within 2 years, recommendations on development in the basin would be made. "If not affirmatively disapproved by the Congress" within 4 legislative months, its plan would "be deemed to be effective."

There was considerable momentum for establishment of valley authorities. In 1933, President Roosevelt had convinced Congress to establish the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a unique Government corporation vested with development and management of water and related land resources in the basin. Unlike the Corps of Engineers, the TVA was guided by one set of laws covering the many aspects of its work, including land as well as water resources. Also, unlike the Corps, TVA needed only the approval of the appropriations committees of Congress to begin construction.

After the TVA survived its first court tests in 1936 interest in regional administrative authorities developed in other river basins. President Roosevelt was still in "hearty accord" with the concept. He stated in 1944 that the TVA's activities had brought "many kindred improvements which go to make for increased security and greater human happiness." Roosevelt sought to apply the TVA concept to other basins, including the Missouri.

Missouri basin water activists sharply differed with Roosevelt on the idea. The TVA emphasized flow of authority from the top. Basin interests believed Roosevelt advocated direct government as opposed to representative government. They did not share his desire for central direction.

Bureau supporters trusted the Bureau to observe the system of Western States' water law. The 1902 Reclamation Act required the Bureau to do so, but the Corps and TVA were under no such constraint. A working relationship existed with Bureau officials. A plan of projects was prepared based on interaction between upper basin interests and Bureau planners. Bureau adherents were not interested in a regional administrative authority for the Missouri.

The Corps also had its constituency in the Missouri basin. This group included the congressional committees that dealt with water resources matters and advocates of protection from floods and an improved navigable waterway. Satisfied clients provided critical political support. The Corps drew upon these beneficiaries for support during the legislative period of 1944 and 1945.

So the lines were drawn over the issues represented by Pick, Sloan, and the MVA. The Pick plan, with its emphasis on flood control and navigation, drew its strength from lower basin interests and their advocates in Congress, notably Overton and Whittington. Support for Sloan 's plan for irrigation and hydroelectricity came from upriver and had articulate congressional backing led by O'Mahoney. Both groups of interests agreed on one thing: they opposed the creation of an MVA.

Control room at Big Bend Dam

This consensus brought the two groups together. The vehicle for the coalition was the Missouri River States Committee (MRSC), a conference of Governors established in 1942 that advocated headwaters-to-mouth planning. As natural resources scholar Marion Clawson noted, MRSC "cogently pointed out that water development in any part of a basin unavoidably affects water use and water quality in other parts of the same basin and that the same water often has value for several purposes."

The MRSC provided a structured organizational vehicle for development of a basin consciousness, exchange of information, and unified support for a development plan. To crystallize thinking for headwaters-to-mouth development, find a basis for bargaining among interests, and settle conflicts through coalition building, the MRSC sponsored several meetings in the summer of 1943. Pick and Sloan attended them and presented their respective plans.

The MRSC pressed Congress for acceptance of the Sloan and Pick plans and the 9-foot channel. In early August 1944, it petitioned the President, Congress, and the Federal agencies to conclude and adopt a coordinated plan. Seven of the eight states' representatives voted for a proviso in the resolution that " nothing done in the interests of flood control or navigation shall adversely affect the use of water for irrigation west of the ninety-seventh meridian."

President Roosevelt attached the MRSC resolution to a September message to Congress. He inferred that the resolution advocated creation of an MVA, although it did not refer to a regional authority. The Governors, however, expressed their desire for development by the Corps and Bureau based on coordination of the agencies' plans as approved by Congress.

Roosevelt misunderstood the strength of opposition to an MVA in the basin. His effort to control policy implementation and substitute Presidential priorities in water project decisions customarily made by congressional committees failed. There would be no realignment of the traditional relationships between the legislative and executive branches.

The Corps and the Bureau aided Congress by providing the committees a suitable alternative to the MVA. Instructed by their agency heads and urged by the MRSC, Sloan and John R. Riter of the Bureau met in October 1944 with Pick's successor, Brigadier General Roscoe C. Crawford, and Gail A. Hathaway, Chief of Engineering in the Office of the Chief of Engineers. These men reconciled engineering differences in the proposals and jointly endorsed a combined plan. The merged plans were central to a congressional strategy against expansion of the institutional presidency under a regional authority.

The original plans differed in purpose and details. They agreed on the basic concept of storage and control of riverflow for multiple uses. Both proposed a series of big dams and reservoirs on the main stem above Sioux City. Differences in total reservoir storage capacity amounted to less than 5 million acre-feet. Both would develop hydropower where feasible, after meeting primary demands for irrigation or navigation and flood control.

The conferees based their agreement on allocations of jurisdiction for the proposed development. The Corps was responsible for determining main stem and tributary reservoir capacities for flood control and navigation. The Bureau would determine reservoir capacities on the main stem and tributaries for irrigation purposes.

The two agencies made major compromises on proposed main stem dams between Fort Peck and Sioux City. They agreed on five in the Dakotas. These would impound 72 percent of the new water storage in the entire basin. \

The Gavins Point reservoir, recommended by the Corps, would contain 200,000 acre-feet of storage and would extend from Yankton to Running Water. Garrison, which was in the original Pick plan, would go just above Stanton, North Dakota. It would impound 17 million acre-feet of water and extend over 100 miles westward toward the Montana State line. Fort Randall, at the border between Nebraska and South Dakota, would back water to above Chamberlain, South Dakota. Smaller than the Corps first planned, it would store 5 million acre-feet. The conferees accepted Big Bend, first proposed by the Bureau, for development of a 250,000 acre-foot pool below Pierre.

Oahe, the fifth project, had been recommended by both agencies. The compromise resulted in the adoption of the Sloan version, which was far larger than Pick's. Oahe would be built just above Pierre and would store 19.5 million acre-feet of water.

The Corps had no plans for the Missouri and its tributaries above Fort Peck and made no recommendations for projects on the small streams flowing eastward through the western Dakotas. The Bureau proposed 19 Montana dams with a combined storage of 4.2 million acre-feet. In the Dakotas, the Bureau wanted 15 dams, with a total storage capacity of over 1.2 million acre-feet. The conferees recommended development of these projects.

In the Yellowstone basin, two large reservoirs were eliminated from the original Corps plans. The joint report proposed 27 Bureau projects in Montana and Wyoming. Storage capacity would exceed 4 million acre-feet. Powerplants were included for eight of the dams. Irrigation would be provided for 509,560 acres of new lands and additional water would be provided for 204,500 acres.

Generators at Fort Randall Dam

On the Niobrara, Platte, and Kansas Rivers, the agencies made some original plan adjustments. Congress had previously authorized projects on the streams, but the Pick plan asked for five more reservoirs. The Bureau proposed 22. The joint recommendation was for 25. Water would be made available to irrigate 1,284,000 new acres, and power would be generated at two of the dams. The projects would also control floods and silt.

The joint report retained the lower basin projects presented in the original Corps plan. Six flood control dams on tributaries in Missouri, the Metropolitan Kansas City flood protection works, and a levee system below Sioux City were previously authorized. Pick recommended acceptance and expansion of these projects complementing the main dams.

These agreements reflected the agencies' roles mandated in national legislation. Objectively addressed were the Corps' national mission of flood damage abatement and the Bureau's role as well. The joint report specified the agencies' dominant interests in the Missouri basin.

It was a reasonable solution. The Corps and the Bureau settled differences in the original proposals with minor concessions and without loss of principle. President Roosevelt saw the joint plan as only a beginning and believed the issues confronting water resources development in the Missouri basin still called for an MVA.

At this stage of policymaking, Overton played the critical role. He had a choice between bringing before the Senate the flood control bill with the original Pick plan or the rivers and harbors bill with the 9-foot channel. He chose the former; endorsed the joint report, referred to as the Pick-Sloan plan; and urged Senate approval without delay. Overton also agreed publicly to O'Mahoney's revisions assuring recognition for the rights of states in water, overcoming the last hurdle. MVA legislation, on the other hand, never made it out of committee.

On 22 December 1944, President Roosevelt approved the Flood Control Act. He still wanted an MVA, but he signed the law with the spoken proviso that it in no way jeopardize the future establishment of an MVA. But his was a forlorn hope. The PickSloan plan would provide the framework for the development of water resources on the Missouri and the basis for Omaha District's major undertakings on the main stem in the years to come.