Oahe Dam

The Oahe Dam began operating in the early 1960s as a key part of a system of six large federal dam and reservoir projects that reduce flood risks for the populations and urban and agricultural properties downstream along the mainstem Missouri River. When not operating to reduce flood impacts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages this mainstem system of dams and reservoirs to balance hydropower generation, water supply, water quality, irrigation, fish and wildlife conservation, navigation, and recreation benefits. 

The River Basin Balancer Game offers insight into an inland waterway and a system of reservoirs, which are operated with a goal for serving each of the benefits, flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation, fish and wildlife, and water quality, for which many USACE reservoirs are authorized and constructed. Users can take charge of river operations and experience the unique challenges presented when managing reservoir operations in a variety of weather conditions across a geographically diverse basin.

Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! Prevent invasive species Water Safety Reserve a campsite at USACE campgrounds at Recreation.gov Purchase Navigation and Boating Maps from the Jefferson National Parks Association

Oahe News Releases

Oahe Project Resumes Powerhouse Tours; Visitor Center Summer Hours Set
6/7/2022 UPDATED
The Oahe Project is once again offering tours of the Oahe Powerhouse.Public walk-in tours will be available Wednesday through Saturday beginning June 2 and ending on September 5. Tours will start at...
Corps closes visitor centers, suspends tours
3/18/2020
Due to health and safety precautions regarding COVID-19 (coronavirus), all U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Omaha District Visitor Centers will be closed and all public group tours and events and have...
Public input sought on Lake Oahe Shoreline Management Plan
2/8/2019
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, is in the process of revising the Lake Oahe (South Dakota) Shoreline Management Plan (SMP), which was last updated in 1977. An open house style...

Description

Location: Near Pierre, S.D., River Mile 1,072.3

Surrounded by the rolling prairies of the Dakotas, Lake Oahe is the fourth largest man-made lake in the United States, stretching 230 miles from Pierre, South Dakota to Bismarck, North Dakota.  

The dam consists of an earthen embankment, an outlet structure with six tunnels for releasing stored water, a powerhouse, and eight spillway gates on a concrete-lined spillway. During normal operations, USACE releases water through the powerhouse to generate power and balance reservoir levels for other uses. As operations shift to reducing flood risks during periods of high runoff, water also is released through the outlet structure and if needed, USACE dam operators can release more water through the spillway gates. More information about the project’s features is available here.

This graphic illustrates the how the water storage capacity of the six upper Missouri River dams compares among that of other USACE reservoirs in the continental United States
A photo of Oahe Dam
The seven turbines in the Oahe Dam powerplant can generate up to 786,030 kilowatts of power

Operating for many benefits

The dam and reservoir provide many benefits to the local and regional public and to the nation. These include reducing the loss of life and property damage from floods, recreation, producing hydropower, and providing water for municipal and industrial uses. The storage and release of water also benefits recreation, irrigation, water quality, fish and wildlife, and commercial navigation. The dam can generate 786,000 average kilowatt hours a year.

Recreation

Lake Oahe is the fourth largest reservoir in the country and provides ample room for the 2 million annual visitors who access the lake from over 50 recreation areas. Water-based recreation ranges from power sports like pleasure boating, skiing, and tubing while isolated bays and shorelines provide quiet, protected areas for paddleboards and kayaks.

Campgrounds, boat ramps, and day use areas are spread around the lake and range from primitive to modern. Recreational areas managed by the Corps of Engineers include Beaver Creek, Cattail Bay, and Hazelton Campgrounds and Boat Ramps, Kimball Bottoms Off Road Vehicle Area, and parts of the Oahe Downstream. The remainder of the areas are managed by tribal, state, and other local agencies.

This oasis in the prairie with locally diverse habitats attracts an abundance of wildlife for sightseers and bird watchers. Bald eagles frequent all areas of the lake and congregate below the dam overwinter, and the lake provides many rare bird sightings for the Dakotas. The lake shore, sandbars and islands provide nesting and chick rearing habitat for the endangered least tern and threatened piping plover.  These little birds have a precarious life trying to survive through water level changes, storms, predators, and human disturbance.  Visitors are requested to avoid recreating in areas with nesting birds.

Additional information about nearby activities, camping, day use, and reservations are available here.

Oahe Dam is operated to store additional inflow from rain or snowmelt and to reduce flood risks to downstream communities. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can release additional water downstream through six regulatory outlet tunnels when the powerhouse is shut down for maintenance or when high reservoir levels need to be lowered to reduce risks to the dam.
Collapse All Expand All

Highways 1804 and 1806 pass by most of Oahe’s recreation areas from Bismarck, N.D. to Pierre, S.D.

Lake Oahe is home to world class hunting and fishing. The lake’s varied habitat supports large populations of walleye, channel catfish, smallmouth bass, and northern pike. Its deep, cold water supports a unique opportunity to catch stocked salmon. At over 300,000 acres, the lake provides ample room for fisherman to pursue their favorite quarry year-round. This major wintering and stopover area for migrating waterfowl provides excellent late season hunting.

Lake Oahe has over 2,250 miles of shoreline, and most of the adjoining 100,000 acres of public land is open to public hunting.  The neighboring prairies and draws provide great hunting for upland birds, such as pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, and turkeys, as well as big game including pronghorn, whitetail deer, and mule deer.

Hunting and fishing are managed by the North Dakota Game and FishSouth Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks, and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Game, Fish, and Parks Departments within their respective boundaries.

The Oahe Dam Visitor Center is located on the eastern crest of the dam along Highway 1804. Displays provide information about the natural and cultural history of the area and highlight construction of the dam, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and the fish and wildlife of Lake Oahe. The visitor center provides an excellent view of Lake Oahe, the dam’s power intake structure, and the Missouri River. Eagles and geese are commonly observed from the visitor center during the winter, and the overlook provides a great view of people fishing and boating near the dam during the summer. The historic Oahe Chapel is also located here, and there is plenty of room to walk around and enjoy the view.

Visitor Center Hours: The Visitor Center is staffed weekdays year-round by South Dakota Missouri River Tourism but hours can vary so please call ahead if you are planning to stop.  

Memorial Day to Labor Day:
Monday through Saturday,
9 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 4 p.m.

(605) 224-4617

Powerhouse tours are available for the public following Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 1:00 p.m. Off-season tours are available by special appointment for schools and civic groups. Please call (605) 945-3423 for more information. Tours can be cancelled without notice so please call ahead to verify the schedule.

Tours begin at the Oahe Visitor Center. Visitors should arrive 10 minutes prior to the tour and visitors over 18 years old must show a government issued photo ID. Tours last up to an hour and a half and include a walk-through of the powerhouse and includes several flights of stairs.

The following items are prohibited in the powerhouse and must be left in your vehicle:

  • Purses, backpacks, or bags of any kind
  • Strollers and child carriers
  • Cameras, photography, or filming of any kind
  • Cell phone, fitness watches, smart phones, smart watches, or any electronic devices (medical devices are allowed)
  • Food and drink
  • Weapons, including pocketknives and multi-tools

Reducing Flood Risks

During normal operations of Oahe Dam, when the region is not threatened by significant storms, USACE releases up to 54,000 cubic feet of water per second through two penstock tunnels to generate power and balance reservoir levels for other uses. One cubic foot of water, or cfs, is equal to 7.5 gallons. When reservoir levels are high and operations shift to reducing flood risks to downstream communities, most often during extreme storms when rain or snowmelt fill the reservoir, dam operators can release additional water through six regulatory outlet tunnels and through the eight spillway gates. Combined, these tunnels can collectively pass 111,000 cubic feet of water per second. The spillway, while never needed, is designed to release 304,000 cubic feet of water per second.

For perspective, the largest release of water was 160,000 cubic feet of water per second through the powerhouse and tunnels in June 2011. It is important to understand that the dam is designed to release up to 415,000 cfs when necessary and that dams do not eliminate flood risk.

 

Water continues to surge at the Oahe Dam, on the Missouri River, upstream from the city of Pierre. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to elevate the volume of water moving through the dam as a direct result of record snowfall in Montana that is beginning to melt and heavy rainfall in eastern Wyoming, Montana, and the western Dakotas. The release of water from the Oahe Dam is expected to reach upwards of 150 thousand cubic feet per second.
Collapse All Expand All

As part of its Dam Safety Program, Omaha District conducts detailed engineering analyses to ensure its dams are safe and that risks to the public, property, and the environment are minimized to the extent possible. Dam safety standards and practices are continually updated to improve the maintenance and operation of dams to ensure they can safely serve their original purposes. In addition, dam safety engineers across federal and state agencies share information as they learn about the performance of flood risk reduction structures built over many decades. They now use more precise, modern technologies and apply up-to-date science to reduce flood risk more effectively. Oahe Dam is operating as designed but in the unlikely case of uncontrolled reservoir releases, significant consequences could impact downstream populations, including numerous urban centers along the Missouri River.  

Omaha District completed several actions to improve and repair Oahe Dam after the flooding of 2011. These included adding drains to further stabilize the dam’s foundation, additional instrumentation to enhance foundation monitoring, and the use of state-of-the-art surveying technology to improve monitoring of the spillway and embankment. To reduce the probability of overtopping USACE also removed sediment that restricted flow through the spillway. Visit the National Inventory of Dams to learn more about how dams work and Oahe Dam risk assessments.

History

The banks of the Upper Missouri River around Lake Oahe have a rich history. People have been hunting, fishing, and gathering along these banks for more than 9,000 years. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Arikara and Mandan peoples lived along the bluffs of the Missouri River. They were a sedentary people who grew corn, beans, and squash and lived in large earthlodge villages. The Lakota, of the Great Sioux Nation, also lived and hunted along the banks of the Missouri River, they were semi-nomadic people who hunted buffalo and lived in teepees.

The turn of the 19th century brought much change to the plains and the tribal way of life. The Arikrara and Mandan were displaced and decimated by smallpox epidemics. By the 1830’s Plains Tribes were engaged in the fur trade which was a predominant economic activity on the upper Missouri River. During the second half of the 19th century, the United States military expanded onto the plains, bison herds were destroyed, the American Indian Wars had begun and the reservation system was established.

Historical sites surround Lake Oahe including several military and fur trade forts. Significant forts include Fort Pierre Chouteau which was the largest established on the Upper Missouri, Fort Lincoln where General Custer was stationed, and Fort Manuel Trading Post where Sacajawea, the Shoshone Indian woman who served as a guide for Lewis and Clark, is believed to be buried. The grave site of the revered Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, is also nearby.