Ute tribal members suing agency over right-of-way dispute

Published: Thursday, June 3 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

UTAHN, Duchesne County — Three members of the Ute Indian Tribe, including a former Business Committee member, have filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs alleging the BIA has ruined their property by granting rights-of-way to two irrigation companies.

In federal court documents, Richard Mountain, Stewart Pike and Floyd Wopsock maintain the BIA "systematically allowed non-Indian irrigation companies . . . to build facilities that trespass on trust lands, divert valuable irrigation water supplies off Indian lands and impair important fisheries expressly protected by Congress."

Members of Shanks Irrigation and Knight's Canal companies are caught in the crossfire. Early on in the irrigation season, a "no trespassing" sign appeared at the gate across Duchesne County's Rock Creek Road. The gate leads to the Rock Creek point of diversion, which irrigators use to gain access to their 15-year-old rights-of-way. The water shares held by irrigators include state of Utah water rights and Central Utah Project shares.

Duchesne County Commissioners declined to become involved in the matter, saying any dispute irrigators may have is with individual members of the Ute Tribe and not tribal government.

"The county is not involved in the water issue," said Duchesne County Commission Chairman Larry Ross, "As far as the gate issue, the gate was put on the county right-of-way . . . We are in the process of working to resolve that," Ross said, declining further comment.

Irrigation company officials heeded the sign. However, after failing to reach an accord through attorneys and wanting to avoid confrontation, they filed their own suit in federal court against the three men who are suing the BIA. The irrigation companies will apparently be able to continue to use the rights-of-way pending the outcome of the lawsuit that is expected to be heard this fall.

The two irrigation companies are not named as defendants in the suit.

Mountain and Pike are seeking $10,000 in damages dating back to 1997. The suit alleges the BIA has failed to follow its own 2001 promise to "evict, and obtain damages from unlawful Indian reservation trespass,"

With the OK from federal judge Tena Campbell, ditch riders were finally able to open head gates about two weeks ago so water could be diverted to 20 farms and ranches in the Utahn area of Duchesne County. Mountain has about 429 acres of leased and allotted tribal land and Pike has a small percentage of ownership in a 40-acre allotment in the area, according to court records. Wopsock is listed in court documents as a former tribal government leader who "repeatedly notified the BIA of harmful third-party trespass to tribal and allotted lands by certain non-Indian pipeline companies."

Mountain and Pike maintain the pipelines ruined canal systems which supplied water to their crop land and for fisheries. As a result, court records say their livelihood linked to agriculture has been irreparably harmed.

The pipelines were constructed with funding from the federal government's salinity reduction project. All three plaintiffs claim to have been injured by the alleged destruction of riparian habitat and to the Rock Creek fisheries generated from the development of the Salinity Control Act.

Court documents state the Ute Tribe Business Committee signed off on the salinity control project, granting rights-of-way for the two pipelines used by the Shanks and Knight irrigation companies, and even committing money towards the project.

Mountain and Pike's leased allotments are not served by the pipeline, but irrigation officials said that was their choice when the pipeline was installed. As part of the salinity control project, a diversion device was installed to serve 40 acres of Mountain's property, according to court records.


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