Selenium in the Soil: How Natural Toxicity and Migratory Waterfowl Led to a Pro-Irrigation Coalition in South Dakota, 1959–90

Thursday, January 7, 2010: 3:20 PM
Del Mar Room (Marriott)
David A. Nesheim , University of Nebraska at Lincoln
Despite the failure of Congress to authorize a large-scale irrigation project in over twenty years, a 1990 Senate sub-committee heard testimony from South Dakota federal and state officials, U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees, representatives of the National Wildlife Federation, the Yankton Sioux Tribal Council Chairman, and several small-scale farmers in support of the Lake Andes/Wagner and Marty II irrigation units. The incongruous coalition shared a startling consensus on the project's first phase - a multi-year study investigating strategies to mitigate the potentially toxic run-off caused by the presence of high concentrations of selenium, a naturally occurring trace element that elsewhere had caused a biological catastrophe at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in 1983. The inclusion of Yankton Sioux Tribal land and the Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge in the South Dakota project helps to explain the wide array of supporters; yet most historians agree that by 1990 irrigation development in the United States was a dead letter. Although Congress voted down the proposal, the forty year saga of the largely grassroots effort to bring Missouri River water to the fields of south-central South Dakota reveals a rich story.

In addition to complicating the traditional narratives of the Pick-Sloan plan and U.S. water policy, the story of the Wagner Unit, as the project was originally designated in 1959, forces us to grapple with fundamental questions about humanity's relationship with the natural world, and the autonomy of nature. Using the traditional sources of congressional testimony and debates and local newspaper accounts, this paper also engages environmental science and philosophy to untangle the contradictory trajectories of irrigation development, wildlife conservation, and toxic soil.