Oakes Test Area Irrigation

North Dakotans have long understood that the farm is more than a place to grow raw materials. Bringing food processing to North Dakota means jobs for North Dakotans and more control for farmers over what they grow and how they market it. Garrison Diversion supports programs that help farmers achieve more with their available resources. One such program is the Oakes Test Area, a 5,000-acre irrigation test site near Oakes in southeast North Dakota.

The program was developed in 1980 by the Bureau of Reclamation in cooperation with state and federal agencies. Data collection and monitoring began in 1980 to document pre-development conditions; irrigation delivery began in 1988 after the completion of a subsurface drainage system and water distribution system. 

Garrison Diversion Operations & Maintenance (O&M) staff works to keep the extensive system of subsurface pipe drains in optimum working order. Routine maintenance procedures include operating the pumps, cleaning drains and servicing equipment. 

The irrigation project in Oakes was designed to demonstrate that a well-managed irrigation system could produce high-value, irrigated crops with minimal environmental impacts. On working farms owned and operated by North Dakotans, farmers are growing onions, potatoes, corn and beans using advanced methods of irrigation and sophisticated weed and pest control techniques. The geology of the Oakes area makes it possible to take very precise measurements of the impact that irrigating farmland has on rivers, lakes, groundwater and the environment under different conditions.

Carefully measuring the effect new farming methods have on soil and water in the Oakes Test Area provides data that can be used all over the world to help developing agriculture grow in harmony with the environment and the global economy. Combined with local processing and aggressive marketing, these methods have opened up new opportunities for farmers here at home to expand and diversify in a changing North Dakota. 

Looking to the Future

Though the Oakes Test Area is authorized to irrigate 5,000 acres of land, actual acres irrigated annually ranges anywhere from 500 to 3,500 acres due to a limited water supply.  In order for the test area to irrigate a consistent number of acres, a more reliable water supply needs to be secured. Alternatives are being considered to secure future water supply options for irrigation in the Oakes Test Area.

Federal funding was eliminated for the Oakes Test Area in the 2011-2013 biennium.  As a result, irrigators within the Dickey-Sargent Irrigation District came to an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation to assume all O&M costs associated with the Oakes Test Area.  The Dickey-Sargent Irrigation District is now responsible for all operations and maintenance costs for the irrigation system at the Oakes Test Area.

Garrison Diversion, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Dickey Sargent Irrigation District are working towards a potential title transfer of the facility. The Dickey Sargent Irrigation District is looking into owning and operating the test area. In order for this to work, additional water supplies must be secured.