Federal judge rejects much of Ute Tribe’s water-rights lawsuit

The D.C. judge order that four of the remaining 16 causes of action, be transferred to the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) The confluence of the Green River, left, and Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park. A federal judge has dismissed much of the Ute Indian Tribe’s lawsuit over the federal government’s handling of the tribal water rights

A federal judge has dismissed much of the Ute Indian Tribe’s lawsuit over the federal government’s handling of the tribal water rights, ruling that many of the tribe’s claims were raised too late or are barred for other reasons. Dating back a century, the allegations concern the state and federal government’s alleged mishandling of tribal lands and various water development projects that were to benefit the northeastern Utah tribe.

The tribe announced Wednesday that they would appeal the decision.

In 2018, the tribe sued the U.S. Interior Department alleging the federal government had historically discriminated against the tribe in the administration of water rights, violated tribal sovereignty and failed to fulfill its trust obligations to the tribe. Over the Ute Tribe’s objections, Utah intervened in the suit as a defendant, which greatly expanded its scope.

The tribe was incensed that hundreds of millions in federal taxpayer dollars were spent on the Central Utah Project. Yet none of these facilities was built to serve the irrigation needs of Ute tribal members in violation of due process and equal protection guarantees enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the suit alleged.

Earlier this year, the state came under intense fire by Ute tribal leaders who were upset with the Legislature’s failure to engage tribes when it quickly enacted HB297 establishing the Colorado River Authority of Utah, whose board conspicuously lacks tribal representation despite the Ute Tribe’s claims to the river’s water. The tribe holds extensive water rights that it has not historically used because it lacks the means to divert and store water moving down the Colorado’s tributaries

In a statement released Wednesday by the Utah Attorney General’s office, state officials defended Utah’s handling of tribal water interests and offered conciliatory gestures.

“All along, the State of Utah has maintained there was no discrimination regarding the tribe’s water rights, and we’re grateful the judge affirmed that,” said State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen, who heads the Utah Division of Water Rights. “Difficult emotions can arise from cases like this, and the state is ready to move forward. It intends to continue working with the tribe in the administration of the tribe’s significant water rights in a cooperative and mutually productive way.”

After hearing arguments in July in his D.C. court, U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols granted the federal government’s motion, which Utah joined, to dismiss 12 of the tribe’s 16 causes of action. He ordered the tribe’s remaining four causes of action, which have to do with the implementation of water agreements between the Utah and the federal government, be transferred to the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.

Nichols’s Sept. 15 decision concluded the tribe failed to demonstrate specific, enforceable trust duties that compelled the United States to build or rehabilitate the water projects the tribe had asked for back in the 1960s.

Central to the judge’s ruling were agreements associated with the Central Utah Project (CUP) Completion Act of 1992. He found that the Ute Tribe had waived its claims through that law and by a separate settlement reached in 2012 between the United States and the tribe.

In a press release sent to The Salt Lake Tribune from the Ute Tribe on Wednesday, the tribe called the judge’s decision a “miscarriage of justice” and said it would “vigorously litigate its claims through the appellate process.”

“It is the position of the tribe that the United States cannot continue to simultaneously seek to wield complete administrative control over the tribe’s waters, while at the same time insisting to the federal courts that the United States has no legally enforceable liability to the tribe in relation to the federal government’s management of the tribe’s waters,” they added.

The tribe filed a related suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims seeking monetary damages from the federal government for breaches of fiduciary trust. Judge Robert Hodges dismissed that action earlier this year, noting that the tribe has received $354 million pursuant to the CUP completion act.

Correction • Sept. 23, 9:30 a.m.: This story has been updated after The Salt Lake Tribune received comment from the Ute Tribe in regards to the characterization of the lawsuit and to include the tribe’s statement about the federal judges ruling.