The Garrison File: Profile of a Pork Barrel

For environmentalists, it's an ecological disaster. For taxpayers, it's a stupendous boondoggle. But thanks to a handful of special interests, a federal water project in North Dakota defies liquidation.


Albert Klain has a problem. He owns a farm in Turtle Lake, North Dakota, a 2,500-acre spread with a seemingly endless horizon where he raises wheat and cattle. The problem is a gigantic 50-foot-wide canal that runs through the best part of his land and leaks onto portions of his property. That's not all. Because of the canal, one of his pastures is totally submerged.

The leaky structure is McClusky Canal—also known, to some environmentalists, as "Dr. Strangelove's Canal." It is part of a federal project designed to move irrigation water to North Dakota farms hundreds of miles to the east—farms that actually receive more rainfall than Albert Klain's farm. And except for the unintended leakage, Klain will never receive any useful water from the canal that bisects his land.

McClusky Canal by itself would be a big headache, but in fact it's just a small part of the Garrison Diversion Unit, a $1.2-billion congressional pork barrel that has been on the drawing boards in one form or another for four decades. The concept behind Garrison is a complex series of 3,000 miles of canals, drains, pipelines, and reservoirs to carry water from Lake Sakakawea in western North Dakota to 250,000 acres (roughly six-tenths of one percent of the state's land) in the northern and eastern part of the state. Nearly 20 years and $203 million after Garrison's initial funding, however, not one drop of Garrison irrigation water has nourished North Dakota farmland.

Irrigation to make the prairies bloom sounds as American as apple pie and Norman Rockwell. But the truth of the matter is that the Garrison Diversion Unit is a prime example of pork-barrel politics gone mad. It is backed by one of the most durable and formidable political partnerships in the country—elected officials, special-interest groups, and bureaucrats overseeing water-development projects.

But if every cloud has a silver lining, here it is the unusual coalition that has sprung up to oppose Garrison. It includes such diverse groups as the environmentalist National Audubon Society and the fiscal-conservative National Taxpayers Union. Though such a coalition of putative liberals and conservatives may seem odd, it actually makes perfect sense. Both elements, following their own logic, realize that the federal government, far from protecting the environment, is the very culprit that threatens to disrupt the ecology of North Dakota and adjacent areas—and do so with billions of taxpayers' dollars.

Moreover, Garrison has awakened many environmentalists to a general feature of government long recognized by fiscal conservatives: government is not tempered by the common sense and economic constraints that a private organization or business would face if it wanted to survive in the economic marketplace.

As Geoffrey Norman recently pointed out in an article in Esquire magazine, "Government is not the natural ally of those who would try to save the land and other natural resources. It is, more often, the enemy. No matter what else it might have been guilty of, Exxon, for instance, would never have considered a project that makes as little sense as the Garrison Diversion Unit."

Following years of bitter debate over both its cost and its environmental impacts, Garrison appears to have reached a new threshold: the feisty water project is at this writing in the hands of an appointed commission that is supposed to determine its fate. Maybe the commission will make a difference—but maybe not. If the history of the project is any indication of its likely fate, the Garrison Diversion Unit will stay with us in one form or another.

To understand Garrison, it helps to know something of the state where it would be built. In North Dakota, water resources are either feast or famine. In vast portions of this state, agriculture is known as dryland farming, with wheat and feed grains dominating the economy. But North Dakota also has abundant wetlands. Although it is a little-known fact, North Dakota produces more ducks per year than any other state except Alaska. Wetlands, marshes, and lakes offer prime habitat not only for the plentiful ducks but also for geese and shorebirds. The wetland region is also a supremely valuable and essential stopover point on the Central Flyway migratory route. In many places, these wildlife-laden wetlands exist alongside the dryland farms.

There has been talk of irrigating North Dakota for nearly 100 years. The US Geological Survey first examined the state's water system when it established that the Hudson Bay Divide ran through the state. Surveyors found that on one side of the divide, Missouri River waters flowed south and east to the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico, while on the other side, the Souris River flowed north to Canada, emptying into the Hudson Bay.

By the 1890s, the survey tried to identify a practical route for diverting Missouri River water across the divide into the Hudson Bay basin, primarily to provide irrigation for territorial homesteaders. By the 1920s, the government had its plan, which included a diversion dam in eastern Montana and a feeder canal that would send water eastward into North Dakota. Following a decade of agricultural failures and nearly continuous droughts, the project was started and the Army Corps of Engineers completed the Fort Peck Dam in Montana by 1940. North Dakota landowners in the emerging prairie dustbowl renewed their insistence for a plan to divert Missouri water either from Fort Peck or via another dam built for that purpose closer to home.

It was the Fort Peck Dam, plus disastrous flooding along the Missouri in 1942 and 1943, that set the stage for the first incarnation of the Garrison nightmare. In the wake of the floods, two separate bureaucracies—the Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation—began comprehensive planning for flood control, irrigation, hydroelectric power, navigation, municipal uses, and recreation. The bureau's "Sloan Plan" and the corps' "Pick Plan" were revised and approved by Congress in a shotgun wedding known as the Pick Sloan Plan of the 1944 Flood Control Act. Dam building and flood control were assigned to the corps, while irrigation and hydroelectric-power development went to the bureau. The government was now fully in the business of subsidizing water development.

For North Dakota, the result of this bureaucratic logrolling was a new dam in 1956—the Garrison Dam. It was primarily designed for flood control, a modest goal compared to what would come later, but its construction opened the door for the Reclamation Bureau's gargantuan follow-up plan to construct canals, pipelines, reservoirs, and drains to divert Missouri River water for irrigation. This enormous irrigation project, the Garrison Diversion Unit, was originally authorized by Congress in 1965 at a projected cost of $207 million (or $650 million in 1983 dollars). If it were completed today, it would cost taxpayers $1.2 billion.

Just what is Garrison supposed to do? The grand scheme behind it is to move hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is the equivalent of one acre of land covered by water one foot deep) from the reservoir behind Garrison Dam through a network of channels including 3,000 miles of canals, pipes, and drains, plus three enormous regulating reservoirs and pumping stations. The goal is to provide irrigation to 250,000 acres of North Dakota farmland.

Behind the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River lies Lake Sakakawea. A pumping station forces water from Sakakawea across a highway, into Audubon Lake (which is ironic, since the National Audubon Society remains one of the chief opponents of this project). Water from Audubon Lake is then released into McClusky Canal, a 74-mile connecting link to yet another body of water, Lonetree Reservoir, that will hold 535,000 acre-feet of water.

From Lonetree, the water will be diverted north to irrigate 116,000 acres or east to irrigate 21,000 acres, "freshen" Devils Lake, and branch off to irrigate another 48,000 acres. Finally, a modest four-mile canal branches out to add water to the James River, from which another 13,500 acres could be irrigated as the James runs its course to the south.

The project is massive—not because of the amount of land to be irrigated but because the project itself extends for hundreds of miles. In some places, Garrison is designed to move water more than 250 miles for irrigation purposes.

There's another way it's massive. Garrison Dam alone cost North Dakota more than 350,000 acres of productive lands that were flooded by its construction. That's already far more than the land to be irrigated via the project. And if the entire project is completed, it could gobble up another 350,000 acres.

Almost from its inception, opponents have criticized Garrison. Initial and highly optimistic studies done in 1960 by the Bureau of the Budget estimated a benefit-cost ratio for Garrison at a pitiful .76 to 1; in other words, it would produce only 76 cents' worth of benefits for every dollar invested in it. That alone created a reasonable fiscal argument against the project. Thus, Garrison is a potential subsidy of enormous proportions. According to the Audubon Society, each irrigated acre will receive a $3,800 onetime subsidy, with each lucky farm averaging a $700,000 subsidy.

The scope of this transfer is all the more startling when one considers that North Dakota also led the nation in 1983 in per capita participation in the government's Payment-in-Kind (PIK) program, which rewards farmers for not growing crops. Potential Garrison irrigators will pay only about five percent of the construction costs over 50 years at subsidized interest rates. And who will pick up the rest of the tab? The country's taxpayers, who will subsidize the project through their taxes and support for more crop surpluses. In addition, electricity customers in the Missouri River Basin will subsidize Garrison by shouldering some of the costs through higher electricity rates.

Much of the money consumed by Garrison has already gone for the purchase of vast tracts of land—but the project currently has two mandates to buy up even more. The first of these is to purchase large amounts of land to construct the array of canals and reservoirs in the project. The Bureau of Reclamation has estimated that in addition to the land consumed by the Garrison Dam, the agency may have to acquire nearly 200,000 acres for other parts of the diversion unit, simply to irrigate 250,000 other acres.

The second mandate is to buy land under the 1965 congressional authorization, which required the government to acquire and set aside land to compensate for all fish and wildlife losses resulting from the water project. This process, called "mitigation," is the source of tremendous controversy, since 150,000 additional acres have been designated for possible acquisition by the federal government.

In its lawsuit that tried unsuccessfully to block the Garrison project, the National Audubon Society claimed that "even with a mitigation plan, Garrison would still result in serious net losses of wildlife and wildlife habitat." The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), an Interior Department agency that devised the mitigation plan, estimated that of the 150,000 designated acres, more than 50,000 acres was productive farmland. FWS also estimated three years ago that it would spend over $80 million for the mitigation plan, primarily for acquiring land. Thus, under the Garrison banner, huge tracts of land—both productive farmland and vital wetlands-have been slated for acquisition at taxpayers' expense, all justified by the proposed irrigation of six-tenths of one percent of North Dakota's farmland.

If Garrison is an economic travesty, it is equally an engineering nightmare. It involves an enormously complicated scheme of draining and flooding selected tracts of both drylands and marshes. To construct McClusky Canal, for example, the Bureau of Reclamation had to reduce the level of the aquifer in the Turtle Lake area by draining large amounts of water. The result was a lowering of the water table. Similarly, the Painted Woods Aquifer in Burleigh County had to be lowered for canal construction, and a host of problems resulted. The Jamestown (N.D.) Sun reported the claim of a former Bureau of Reclamation project officer that "building the canal through this reach will tax the ingenuity of the contractor in his construction methods and use of equipment." Garrison has also taxed the ingenuity of the farmers whose wells went dry when the water table was altered. "Without water, just getting by in this area became difficult," recalls Ben Schatz, an ex-farmer who moved into town when canal construction robbed him of his well.

Compounding the draining problems is considerable flooding. Besides the dozens of leaks in McClusky Canal that continue to cause spillovers onto private farmland, the Bureau of Reclamation has intentionally flooded other areas in the wake of its construction projects. Conservationists have joined fiscal conservatives in opposing Garrison, because this excessive flooding threatens to destroy or alter more than 70,000 acres of delicately balanced prairie wetlands while ruining seven national wildlife refuges located in the state. Environmentalists have pointed out that fish and wildlife populations are seriously jeopardized when the ecological balance is upset by large amounts of water washing away food sources and nesting sites.

The National Audubon Society began opposing the project in 1973, expressing concern over the loss of both productive farmland and wetland habitat. The wetlands include the seven national wildlife refuges plus waterfowl areas and state game-management areas. Wildlife experts also estimated that up to 70 species of birds, including grebes, herons, geese, and ducks, are known to breed in an area that could be inundated by the project.

When Garrison Dam was built during the 1950s, a wildlife refuge was established to compensate for the destruction of a beautiful wetland habitat. Named for the famous naturalist John James Audubon, the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge provided a substitute habitat for a variety of wildlife, including cranes and migrating ducks and geese. Because of flooding during construction of McClusky Canal, however, the government has endangered its own refuge. In a 1979 environmental impact statement for the Garrison Diversion Unit, researchers warned that flooding the Audubon's shallow marshes could ruin whooping cranes' nesting sites and increase erosion damage to their habitat, resulting in a population reduction. The same grim forecast was predicted for other marshland wildlife.

The Garrison project poses other environmental problems, as well. For example, the Canadian government opposes the project primarily because the 74-mile-long McClusky Canal comes perilously close to bridging the Continental Divide between North Dakota and Manitoba, sending Missouri River water into the Hudson Bay drainage. These two drainages have been separate for more than 10,000 years. In that time, each basin has developed its own plant and aquatic species. Wildlife biologists on both sides of the border have said that an interbasin transfer of water, fish species, and other biological materials ("biota") threatens both the integrity of Canadian waters and, ultimately, major portions of the Canadian fishing industry. Furthermore, they argue that construction of Garrison violates a 1909 treaty under which Canada and the United States promised that "waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other."

Construction of Lonetree Reservoir on the Sheyenne River, which began last summer, also threatens the integrity of Canadian waters, since the two drainage basins will be brought to within 20 feet of each other. A report by the US-Canada Joint Commission warns that despite the claims of Garrison officials, water from the Missouri drainage will be able to infiltrate the Hudson Bay drainage. In addition, Sheyenne Lake National Wildlife Refuge will be totally inundated and thus destroyed. And Sheyenne Lake is not the only national wildlife refuge that is endangered. At Arrowhead National Wildlife Refuge, the Audubon Society has predicted that with the 35 percent increase in water flow, the stronger current will flush out wildlife food supplies and virtually ruin a federal project already paid for by taxpayers.

Over the years, under the strain of considerable opposition, the Bureau of Reclamation has repeatedly altered the project to respond to current objections. Most recently, for example, it decided to build Garrison in stages, starting with Phase I—an 85,000-acre plan, scaled down from the original 250,000 acres—in an attempt to mollify the critics for the time being.

Garrison's ecological price is steep, but it has taken other tolls, too, more-subtle social losses that are difficult to measure. McClusky Canal has divided several communities in its 74-mile-long path, both physically and politically. It has disrupted otherwise peaceful rural communities by rearranging lives. "Our township used to have roads which once connected all of us. Now all we have is a bunch of dead-end roads which run right into the canal, dividing farms in two," observes farmer Albert Klain, who sees the Garrison Diversion Unit as an endless series of broken promises.

How does Garrison make sense for someone like Ben Schatz, a farmer whose 720-acre farm has been hacked apart by construction of the McClusky Canal? Schatz worked the land for over 50 years and lost the battle against the canal being routed through his farmland. He remembers that the Bureau once offered him $10,000 for an 80-acre right-of-way. "At first they told me the canal would be 25 feet wide. They didn't tell me that this was at the canal's bottom and that the canal might also be 100 feet deep where it cut through my farm," Schatz adds. He says that a Bureau of Reclamation official later told him, "You're just a dot to us. When you are in the way, we move you."

Brothers John and Ralph Anderson, who operated a livestock business while renting out their cropland, initially lost 300 acres to the canal. After it was constructed, they found that their water quality dropped significantly and the canal drained the surrounding aquifers, reducing the water table. They ended up selling out completely when they lacked sufficient water to continue with their business.

So who in North Dakota supports Garrison? The Garrison Diversion Conservancy District (GDCD) does, for one. It was established by the North Dakota legislature and has the power to levy taxes throughout a 25-county "conservation" district. It has levied a one-mill tax and has already collected millions in revenues. McLean County residents, for example, have already paid more than $200,000 in conservancy taxes, but like their neighbors in some other counties, they have not received one drop of irrigation water. The GDCD is the primary cheerleader for the project, and it uses state tax money to issue a mountain of pro-Garrison promotional materials.

There is also considerable support for Garrison in some of the small towns' business communities. After all, there is money to be made from lengthy construction contracts and long-term stays by construction crews. Professional and civic organizations have likewise backed the project, as have political leaders on both sides of the aisle.

Garrison proponents indicate that over 1,200 farmers will irrigate when the full project is completed and that North Dakota will never again witness the severe droughts that ravaged the state in the 1930s. Garrison opponents respond that since Garrison will only assist six-tenths of one percent of the farmland in the state, the other 99.4 percent could be just as dry as it was in the 1930s.

An argument frequently offered for continuing Garrison is that North Dakota is owed compensation stemming from the construction of Garrison and Oahe Dams, when 550,000 acres were flooded. Farmers in North Dakota owned 350,000 of these acres, and the Sioux and Fort Berthold reservations owned the rest.

The Garrison unit may be compensation, but it's a crazy way to compensate. The $1.2-billion currently estimated cost of Garrison means that the federal government is paying an exorbitant $3,400 per acre to North Dakotans for land lost to these two reservoirs. For their 155,000 acres that were swamped by these dams, the Sioux and Fort Berthold tribes actually received just over $80 per acre from the bureaucracy. Most important, though, it was the Missouri River bottomland farmers and Indians who gave up their lands to the dams, and neither of these groups will be irrigating under the Garrison Diversion Unit.

For those few farmers whose lands will be irrigated by the project, the Garrison Diversion project is a bonanza. Their lands become increasingly valuable with irrigation systems in place, yet they will have only paid a token 3 percent of the actual costs of bringing water to their lands. With water, they will be able to produce more crops. This increase in productivity becomes capitalized into the value of their land, while the costs of the irrigation are paid by others.

Garrison is a "make-work" project in the view of some North Dakotans. "The government poured in a lot of money to our state and gave people jobs digging the canals or building dams, but they never thought about what the project would ultimately mean for those of us who live here," says one Wilton, North Dakota, farmer.

For another North Dakotan, Garrison Diversion has meant a 20-year lesson in government's broken promises. "When the Bureau of Reclamation first ruined my well, they promised that they would haul water so I could keep my cattle operation. When it's 20 below, how can you expect the bureau to haul water from their offices in Bismarck?" he asks.

Albert Klain, whose farm is divided by the McClusky Canal, notes, "The bitterness that is so pervasive in our area cannot be measured in dollars or cents. You always have the option of filing claims against the bureau when they ruin your well or divide your farm in half. But what happens is that your name goes on a list and the bureau then tries to acquire your land outright so that you don't cause them any more problems."

The only portion of the Garrison unit that has been built is the McClusky Canal and accompanying pumping stations, but Garrison remains controversial even in this incomplete state. For now, the water just lies in the big ditch, heading nowhere. Beset by a tortured legal history of numerous attempts by opponents to eliminate its congressional funding, Garrison is now the survivor of several presidential administrations, thanks to a highly persistent bureaucracy. In North Dakota, the opposition—the dryland farmers whose lives have been altered—is as strong as ever. These people do not give up easily. The unforgiving prairie has made them resilient.

Optimists at the Bureau of Reclamation say that the total project with 250,000 acres of irrigation may be completed by the year 2000, provided it is steadily funded by Congress, but construction has not always been steady. Between 1975 and the summer of 1983, for example, no new construction contracts were awarded, since Garrison was tied in knots by lawsuits.

In its 1976 case against the Department of the Interior, the National Audubon Society temporarily disabled the project, when then-Secretary of Interior Cecil Andrus agreed to stop construction of Garrison until a supplementary environmental impact statement and revamped wildlife mitigation plan were prepared. President Carter put Garrison on his "hit list" of about 20 federal water projects to be scaled down or canceled. When Carter presented his selections to Congress, the list was quietly shelved. Rare is the federal lawmaker who will support cancellation of a large water project in his home district or the district of a powerful or valuable colleague.

Under James Watt's administration at the Department of the Interior, Garrison received a significant boost when Watt approved a "Phase I" plan to irrigate 85,460 initial acres. Since then, Garrison supporters have maintained a constant vigil for additional appropriations. In 1982, despite a vote of 252–152 in the House for an amendment to delete all funding for Garrison, the Senate was able to muster a $4-million appropriation for Lonetree Reservoir's construction. This was followed in 1983 by a congressional appropriation of $22.3 million—the largest congressional gift since the original authorization in 1965.

Yet despite defeat after defeat, Garrison's opponents have found reason for a glimmer of hope in the 1982 House vote against continued funding for Garrison. True, it's only a glimmer. North Dakota's two senators, Democrat Quentin Burdick and Republican Mark Andrews, are both ardent supporters of Garrison and both sit on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Few of their colleagues have been eager to incur their displeasure by opposing Garrison. Burdick has even bragged to the folks back home about his successful arm-twisting behind the scenes.

As 1984 was drawing to a close, there were mixed messages concerning Garrison's future. On the one hand, the White House requested $53.6 million for 1985 construction work, a figure that was fully recommended by the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. On the other hand, the House omitted any mention of funding for Garrison.

In the wake of its request, however, the administration sent the North Dakota congressional delegation a "deferral message," a polite way of signaling that Interior Secretary William Clark is "not quite as enthusiastic about Garrison as Watt was," says an anti-Garrison lobbyist. "This is the administration's way of psychologically backing away from Garrison without doing anything too drastic." Perhaps.

In the fall, negotiations between environmentalists and Garrison supporters took a different tack. Since no political official evidently wants responsibility for either aborting or perpetuating Garrison, the matter was turned over for evaluation to a 10-member commission chaired by former Louisiana Republican governor David Treen. The commission was asked to look at alternatives to Garrison—to decide whether Garrison "can be redesigned and reformulated." In the meantime, all congressional appropriations have been held in escrow by the Office of Management and Budget until the commission gives the thumbs-up or thumbs-down sign.

At the end of October, two months before the commission's final report was due, things did not look auspicious. The commission was heavily stacked with probable and overt supporters of Garrison, including Pat O'Meara of the National Water Resources Association, a group favoring water development; John Paulson, the former editor of a Fargo newspaper; Bud Wessman, the mayor of Grand Forks; and John Whittaker, undersecretary of the Interior Department in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Few Garrison opponents were sanguine about the possibility that the commission would impede—let alone stop—the roll of this pork barrel.

Whether its funding is delayed or delivered, the Garrison Diversion Unit remains a classic illustration of "subsidized destruction"—environmental wreckage engendered by economically senseless but politically useful government programs that benefit well-defined interest groups. Such results are not accidental but follow from the incentives that are built into the political and bureaucratic processes. When the government—whether under the temporary control of Democrats or Republicans, conservative or liberal politicians—is managing and controlling resources, the relevant decisionmakers, unlike the public, are buffered from the negative ecological and economic impacts of their decisions. Projects are lobbied for, developed, and eventually funded. And as a rule, these projects are costly, unnecessary, and ecologically dismal.

The good news for the taxpaying public is that projects like Garrison are beginning to arouse constituencies for free-market environmentalism. This new environmental perspective, based on the recognition of property rights, an understanding of the market process, and an appreciation of limited government, provides responsible answers to the issues surrounding resource development. Only the bureaucrats, the subsidized interest groups, and the pork-barrel politicians have cause for alarm at the prospect of free-market environmental analysis making its way into political discourse. After all, fiscal conservatives should find Garrison and similar projects no more palatable than do environmentalists, even if for different reasons. Garrison provides persuasive evidence that these two factions may have more in common than they have usually imagined.

Renée Wyman is an attorney and free-lance writer in Bozeman, Montana. John Baden is the director of the Political Economy Research Center, also in Bozeman.