Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, introduced the Senate version of a Ute Indian/Central Utah Project water rights bill Thursday - but admitted he has little hope that its full half-billion-dollar price tag will be approved.
The House version sponsored by Rep. Howard C. Nielson was introduced earlier this week. All members of the Utah delegation have signed on as co-sponsors of the bills.They propose spending $514 million to both provide some long-delayed CUP water projects for the Utes and to set up a trust fund to compensate the tribe through an annuity for deferring much of its water rights to allow construction of the CUP.
But that half-billion dollars rivals - if it does not exceed - the price tag to complete unfinished portions of the massive CUP Bonneville Unit, which will bring water from eastern Utah to the Wasatch Front. A bill to authorize extra spending needed for it is expected soon.
Garn told reporters, "I met with tribal people last fall, and we talked about it. I told them, `You're justified in being compensated, promises were made to you. But you've got to understand the budget problem of (the) Graham-Rudman-Hollings (Act).
"`I would be very surprised if we were able to get that amount. I'm willing to introduce it. I'm willing to try it because we have an obligation. But I don't want to give you false hope that the amount will be easy to obtain because it won't."'
He added, "We've also got to finish (the Bonneville Unit) of the CUP. Although they are separate issues in a way, they're going to kind of be tied together. And I would expect we're going to have to negotiate CUP increased authorization ceiling as well as responsible settlement for the Indians."
A third CUP bill, already introduced, could also complicate matters. It essentially says the CUP's Jensen Unit near Vernal was a multimillion-dollar mistake - being designed for oil-shale development and a booming population that never came because the oil boom went bust.
That bill asks the federal government to allow Uintah Basin residents to get out of buying eight-ninths of the water from the Jensen Unit that they originally contracted to buy - forcing the federal government to take a loss of tens of millions of dollars. But the government also pushed for that expanded unit.
A press release said Garn and co-sponsor Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, "offered the bill on request of the Ute Indian Tribe and . . . they do not agree with every provision of the bill."
It added that the Bush administration and the Office of Management and Budget oppose the bill as it is written, "most likely because of the $514 million price tag."
Garn concluded, "I intend to help steer the debate so that the end result is both fair to the tribe and to the taxpaying public. It is possible to do both, but I imagine it will take a considerable amount of effort before we reach a satisfactory compromise."