March 29, 2016
OP-ED: Bold Thinking Needed on Title Transfers
By Congressman Rob Bishop
Chairman, House Committee on Natural Resources
Throughout much of the last century, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects have played a significant role in western settlement and development. These projects have provided those in Utah—and elsewhere in the West— critical access to water, emissions-free hydropower, and water-based recreation.
Water and power users continue to pay their fair share in these projects, and in many cases, they operate and maintain them at world-class levels. Yet in times of very limited federal budgets and an ever-growing federal regulatory presence, we must look at alternatives to federal ownership in order to provide local users more control of their destinies. Local ownership will improve projects that would otherwise stagnate under federal control. The solution is to facilitate more title transfers of water projects out of federal ownership, but we must first overcome hurdles that make the job more difficult than it needs to be.
As you read this issue of Irrigation Leader, it is obvious why title transfers are beneficial for some water users. Local ownership (1) promotes nonfederal financing to improve projects as opposed to relying on the unpredictable federal appropriations process, (2) cuts down on onerous federal paperwork requirements, (3) means that water users do not have to rely on artificially expensive federal studies and overhead costs when they actually own the facility, (4) increases the value of lands and water rights that are tied to an improved local project, (5) can help the environment and enhance human safety, and (6) reduces federal liability. Reclamation and Congress must reengage in conveying some of these facilities, particularly for those projects that can truly be low-hanging fruit for a potential title transfer.
The Provo River Project in Utah is a case study of a title transfer win-win. The local water users wanted to pipe an open canal to enhance public safety and conserve water for humans and wildlife species, but they lacked the financing to accomplish it. With little to no funding for project development coming from the federal government, the Provo River Water Users Association aimed to enact a title transfer in order to finance the project themselves.
After Congress took action to convey the facility, the water users leveraged their ownership to obtain the needed collateral to acquire a loan for piping the canal. The federal government also benefitted because it no longer held the liability associated with the project. But the process was anything but easy. Local water users navigated through years of federal bureaucracy and awaited congressional action on two bills to accomplish the title transfer. This was time consuming and costly to the ratepayers.
That transfer process is similar to the delays encountered by other water users. In fact, one thing stands out among the many case studies: The title transfer process is much costlier and time consuming than anticipated. The word expedited is not synonymous with the Reclamation title transfer process.
There have been only 27 title transfers in the last 20 years. Many of those occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They are down to a trickle, and only two title transfers are now pending before the U.S. House of Representatives. To be sure, title transfers may not be appropriate for every local water user organization due to many circumstances, including liability. But we can and should do more to facilitate additional transfers, particularly for federal projects paid out by local water users. The Utah legislature recognized this when it recently passed H.J.R. 4 to support title transfers of the Strawberry Valley, Moon Lake, Emery County, Sanpete, and Provo River projects.
Change begins with Reclamation. It must improve its communication with water users and have proactive goals when it comes to title transfers. Some water users are frustrated with the agency’s cumbersome and lengthy process, and as a result, good title transfer ideas sometimes die by Reclamation red tape strangulation. It also rests with Congress, which must do its part to reduce bureaucratic delay substantially by reducing the time it takes to consider title transfers.
As chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, I want to work with Reclamation and those of you who pay the agency’s bills and operate and maintain its projects on improving this process. We need bold thinking to harness the leadership, innovation, and responsible management of local water users on the ground. Local water users have proven they can do a better job with something they own rather than a project owned by federal bureaucracy.
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