WASHINGTON — The federal government will transfer control of an irrigation test area in south-central North Dakota, allowing the local irrigation district to make upgrades and maintenance to get the irrigation system up to modern standards.

The Department of Interior has notified Congress of its intention to transfer the title of the Oakes, N.D., Test Area to the Dickey-Sargent Irrigation District.

Congress has 90 days to review the transfer, after which time the transfer will be final and the facility will be owned and operated by the irrigation district, explained Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., during a telephone conference announcing the transfer. Hoeven was joined by Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and federal and local officials on the call.

The 5,000 acre irrigation area originally was set up as part of the Garrison Diversion, which would have provided irrigation out of the Missouri River for more than a million acres of North Dakota farmland. The Oakes Test Area was set up to provide irrigation for tens of thousands of acres, but a connection between the Missouri River and the James River never materialized, leaving the test area with the present 5,000 acre site, explained David Locken, chairman of the Dickey-Sargent Irrigation District.

The irrigation area has been owned by the Bureau of Reclamation but leased and operated by the irrigation district for decades. That’s come at a tremendous expense to taxpayers, says Kiel Weaver is the associate deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. At least $60,000 in maintenance costs goes to the Oakes Test Area annually.

Locken said the irrigation district will pay $44,000 for the Oakes Test Area. While that seems low, Locken and Weaver explained that getting the irrigation system up to modern standards will be expensive. Plus, while the Oakes Test Area is authorized to irrigate 5,000 acres of land, due to limited water supply it only services 500 to 3,500 acres per year.

A ditch that delivers water is leaky and needs an upgrade. "So we don’t know how much money that’s going to take,” Locken said. “And we also need to develop another water supply, and we don’t even know if we can swing that on the finances, so we’ll see.”

Weaver said the maintenance and upgrade costs were factored into the price.

“It’s a win, of course, for the irrigation district, but it’s a win for the American taxpayers, too,” he said.

Weaver and Hoeven, R-N.D., credited the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act with streamlining the transfer of federal property to local authorities. Weaver said such a transfer used to take six to eight years; the Oakes Test Area transfer has been in the works for about a year.

Hoeven said the Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation and Dickey-Sargent Irrigation District officials who worked on the transfer showed “the kind of cooperation you don’t always see.”

“There was a lot that went into this,” he said.

Hoeven said he hopes the test site will be able to undertake intensive agricultural operations in the future.

“With all the challenges in agriculture right now, we see how important that is,” he said.