Most of Utah's top water officials testified at a Tuesday hearing on a House bill that would give the Ute Indians more than half a billion dollars for water projects previously cut from the Central Utah Project.
"It's a lot of money," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. "But I very strongly believe they (the Utes) have a very powerful claim against the federal government, and on this and other issues against the state."The water projects proposed in the bill make up a "wish list," Owens said, that was compiled by the Utes and includes two dams, a hydroelectric generating station and numerous rehabilitation projects on existing reservoirs, fisheries and irrigation canals. Most of the projects proposed were lopped from the CUP after the Bureau of Reclamation determined they did not have a positive cost-benefit ratio.
Owens and several other members of the Utah congressional delegation criticized Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, this summer for wanting to include money for eastern Utah CUP features in a $565 million House bill the delegation has been plugging that would raise the authorized spending ceiling for the project's Bonneville Unit.
That bill did not see a vote in the House during the soon-to-end congressional session, and Owens believes it takes priority over the Ute bill. But Owens also believes both issues can be handled separately in Congress, even though the Indian bill deals with projects that were either designed by or have ties with the CUP.
"It's my political instinct that tells me to get the CUP finished first because the Ute Indian thing is bottomed on law," Owens said.
Nielson filed his own bill for a total of $430 million in eastern-Utah water projects. Nielson testified at the Tuesday hearing he and Owens would have to work together to make legislation work, said Owens' press secretary Art Kingdom.
"It's very complex. It involves a lot of tough issues," Owens said of the Ute bill. But without a bill to settle unfulfilled agreements made by the federal government to the Utes, the Indians would likely sue to make good on promises for water development the government made to the tribe in a 1965 deferral agreement.
The Utes rejected in 1985 a settlement offer from the government that would have given the tribe about $480,000 annually in perpetuity as compensation for water rights the government developed off the reservation. A tribal committee member at the time said the compensation would have been a "trinkets and beads" offer and it was rejected.
"We have been patient and waited for the past 23 years," said Maxine Natchess, a member of the tribe's business committee. Rather than choose a course of angry litigation to enforce the deferral agreement we come to you openly and offer some constructive suggestions."
The threat of a suit between the Utes and the federal government is not new, but represents an awkward situation where two entities of the Department of Interior would be suing each other: the Bureau of Indian Affairs, representing the tribe, and the Bureau of Reclamation, builder of the CUP.
Representatives of both federal entities were on the witness list for Tuesday's subcommittee hearing. Also on the list were Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, Nielson, Ute tribal leaders, a state senator, county commissioners from Uintah and Duchesne counties and CUP and state water officials.
The Indian water bill also raises significant questions about the claims of non-Indians who have been paying ad valorem taxes to the CUP since 1965 but whose water projects have also been cut or are threatened because of negative or marginal cost-benefit ratios.
Owens said there's considerable overlap between the Indian issue and promises made to non-Indians who have been waiting 23 years for CUP water that may never come. "It's tough to make an argument they (the non-Indians) have been totally dealt with," he said.
Language in the Ute bill, called the "Ute Indian Water Settlement Act of 1988," implies water developed for the Indians could be sold to the tribe's non-Indian neighbors. If that is an intent of the bill it could represent a "hidden issue I hadn't thought through," Owens said.
The bill and its list of $515 million in water projects was prepared by the tribe at Owens' request under the direction of one of Owens' former law partners, Stephen Boyden, who represents the tribe.
"I'm not committed to that amount or to each of those solutions, but I introduced it by request," Owens said.