Irrigation titles

Michael Miller, manager of the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District, at the diversion from the Columbia River in East Wenatchee, Wash., May 28. The district is seeking ownership of infrastructure from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. — A new federal law and policy is making it easier for some irrigation districts to acquire federal infrastructure they operate.

Irrigation districts in East Wenatchee and Kennewick, Wash., are moving toward that, as are three districts in Idaho. Several others in Idaho and Oregon are interested. District managers say the benefit is greater local control and efficiency.

The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, S. 47, was passed by Congress in February. It was signed into law by President Donald Trump in March and allows the simple title transfer of right of ways, canals, pipelines, diversion dams, pumps and associated infrastructure from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to local districts without congressional approval.

Three district transfers in process in Idaho do not fall under the “simple” category, said Paul Arrington, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association in Boise.

On May 22, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced a new policy allowing categorical exclusion of such transfers from the National Environmental Policy Act process.

The law and the policy will make title transfers quicker and less costly, said Brenda Burman, USBR commissioner.

While Congress has authorized 33 title transfers in western states since the mid-1990s, the Trump administration and Congress agreed streamlining was needed to allow more voluntary transfers.

Local control of infrastructure allows greater flexibility in operations and quicker decisions regarding irrigation easements for residential subdivisions, Washington irrigation district managers said. USBR often doesn’t show up for meetings and can take years to make decisions, they said.

Agricultural and residential customers benefit from greater efficiency, they said.

The Kennewick Irrigation District has been working on congressional authorization for a transfer since signing an agreement with the USBR in 2017. A bill sponsored by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., passed the House last year but died in the Senate. He introduced a new bill in January that has passed committee and is awaiting floor action but no longer is needed because of S. 47 and the new policy, said Charles Freeman, KID manager.

The district has already paid the USBR nearly $4.6 million on a lease-loan over 65 years for the system, pays for its maintenance and is liable for it, Freeman said.

The district still owes about $400,000 for the system and is paying transfer costs at $245,000 and rising and expects to complete the process by Sept. 30, 2020, and gain title shortly thereafter, he said.

The Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District, in East Wenatchee, signed an agreement with USBR on May 7 and likely will affirm that decision June 4, said Michael Miller, district manager.

The district pays the USBR $350,000 annually for its system, which was built by the bureau in the 1960s, he said.

Farther north, the Oroville-Tonasket Irrigation District sued the federal government to gain title transfer in 1990.

“It’s been on everyone’s radar since then,” Miller said. “It popped up here prior to the 2008 recession when the bureau was taking two years to give contractors rights to cross easements. Contractors were just going ahead and doing subdivisions.”

Probably more than a dozen other irrigation districts along the Columbia River from Canada to Oregon have thought about title transfers but only Kennewick and Greater Wenatchee are active, he said.

The Columbia Basin irrigation districts — Quincy, East and South — are more closely tied with the USBR and get water from USBR canals so title transfers would not make as much sense, he said.

Miller, Freeman and Arrington have all worked on the new law and policy change.

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