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Is it time to build new lakes across America?

By Ken Root

When you cover land with water, you stop raising crops but you raise a lot of controversy. In the mid-20th century, there was a lot of dam building in strategic areas where giant reservoirs were formed. Is it time to build more? In the era of urbanization and erratic weather, could America benefit from more fresh water impoundments and could agricultural land owners find another use for their property and a long-term source of income?

When it comes to lakes, where you sit determines what you see. There is a lot of good farm land sitting at the bottom of lakes in this country but the impoundments offer a potable water supply, irrigation and recreation for the region. Those are the basic arguments, pro and con, for constructing reservoirs. The current drought has wheels turning in Washington, D.C., that this may be a time to clean out some existing lakes and rethink building more dams.

To show the amount of soil that has been lost to erosion, you just need to see how much is at the bottom of existing lakes. Some are projected to have filled half their original volume with sediment. It would seem a simple decision to remove a portion of that soil in a time of drought but the EPA wants to know what is in the mud before it is dredged. USDA and members of Congress are exploring how farmers can clean out ponds and maybe get paid for it. The first step is a pilot now underway in two states to sample the sediment and figure out the cost sharing. If it gets broader acceptance and the drought continues, there may be a flurry of activity to deepen existing lakes and ponds for the next time we have an extended dry period.

In my home state of Oklahoma, back at mid-century, Sen. Robert S. Kerr was the driver behind a number of sizable lakes in the eastern half of the state. They are revered today as examples of economic development and wildlife habitat. The lakes that dot the eastern half of the country were mostly the product of legislators who saw them as federal dollars for their state or district and used "eminent domain" to make it happen.

Challenges to the constitutionality of taking land "for the greater good" have been more successful as landowners learned how to work the legal system although it took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to cause states to counter with more restrictive laws:

Kelo v. City of New London (2005) involved the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private owner to another private owner to further economic development. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court held that the general benefits a community enjoyed from economic growth qualified private redevelopment plans as a permissible "public use" under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The result, at the state level, was empowerment of individuals to hold their ground against those who had economic goals that were not shared with the landowner.

However, in the era of drought and fear of climate change, there could be a resurgence of lake building for the greater good. It could be shown that an area would be well served by a new source of water. If the environmental impact of building a dam across a river were viewed as a benefit to agricultural use and water security, then this form of rural infrastructure might be expanded. The downstream benefits could reach into the millions of dollars on an annual basis with an improvement in soil conservation and water quality by containing the flow of rivers and streams in times of flood.

There is another area that intrigues me: independently owned water supplies that would be offered for sale to downstream buyers. If government is involved in the funding of a project, there is little likelihood that individuals can sell the water but if it is all private, could you meter it out to a city or water district downstream? Could you hold it for use on your own land and insulate your agricultural operation against drought or grow non-traditional crops with the abundant water?

We are probably destined to fight over future attempts to build any lake that is bigger than one landowner's property, but there might be a narrow window of opportunity that could result in a change in the landscape. However, whether the lake front is yours or belongs to someone else will still determine your view.

Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at

Date: 2/18/2013


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