Pick-Sloan Plan - Part Two - Debate And Compromise

Pick and Sloan
William Sloan and Colonel Lewis Pick

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Debate
Both the Bureau and the Corps knew of each other's activities and differences of views on basin development, yet each agency went its own way and issued its respective report without regard to the other. While each side sought control over the "Big Muddy," the two plans hopelessly conflicted. The Bureau snickered at the Corps' promise of navigation. The Corps mocked irrigating the northern reaches of the American desert. Each agency lobbied and worked hard to promote its respective plan-and have Congress eventually approve it. Each plan enjoyed the support of an influential lobby in Washington, D.C.; each plan garnered backing by various regional interests within the basin.

Both Congress and the basin's print media hotly debated the merits and failings of the two plans. The upper basin states of Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota favored the Sloan Plan, while the lower basin states, including South Dakota, advocated the Pick Plan. (South Dakota, however, later switched sides.) A photo showing the two principals belies the fact Colonel Pick and William Sloan intensely disliked each other. Pick regarded Sloan as barely his equal. Sloan was easygoing; Pick at times cocky.

The Compromise
Congress received the two plans at the time it was considering legislation to create a Missouri River Authority (similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority and preferred by President Roosevelt). Both the Corps and the Bureau saw the Authority as a threat to its respective interests and hated it. No matter how much the two federal agencies disliked each other, they hated the idea of another public corporation even more. Political expediency and a request from the president for the two agencies to develop a unified plan produced the eventual compromise.

The similarities between the two plans enabled General R. C. Crawford (Col. Pick having meanwhile been assigned to Burma) and William Sloan and another representative from each agency to meet in Omaha on October 16 and 17, 1944, to discuss the plans, and to issue a "joint engineering report"-the Pick-Sloan Plan. Simply put, each agreed to build the projects proposed by the other's agency regardless how worthless those projects seemed just a few months or even days before. Congress ratified the short two-page Omaha agreement in the Flood Control Act of 1944. James Patton, President of the National Farmers Union (it supported a Missouri Valley Authority), called the Corps-bureau compromise "a shameful, loveless shotgun wedding." Congress settled the jurisdiction of the two agencies: the Corps would build and operate all the main-stem dams-even the one at Gavins Point which the Bureau had so strenuously opposed-and the Bureau would allocate the water dedicated to irrigation.

Winners & Losers - Promises Unfulfilled
While most basin residents welcomed the Pick-Sloan Plan, not everyone did. American Indians, those whose reservations bordered the river, particularly opposed it. They were the biggest losers. The reservoirs flooded their best agricultural and grazing lands and displaced hundreds of families. Most affected by the Pick-Sloan Plan, they reaped the least benefit from it.

The chain of Missouri River reservoirs and dams from Montana to South Dakota is one of the nation's engineering marvels. Pick-Sloan reflected the prevailing certainty in large technological projects to sustain and support regional development in areas not favored by climate and geography. The dams and reservoirs have only partially fulfilled their promise - hence the continuing tension in the Missouri River basin.

Last updated: September 17, 2020

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