U.S. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. says he isn't sure yet whether he favors proposals to give the Ute tribe $500 million dollars to compensate for using the tribe's water rights to develop the Central Utah Project.

In a meeting Tuesday with Rep. Howard C. Nielson, R-Utah, and representatives of other Utah congressmen, Lujan said he wants answers to several questions before deciding.As background for Lujan, Nielson explained that in 1965, the federal government essentially borrowed the Utes' water rights to build and develop the CUP to deliver drinking water along the Wasatch Front and more irrigation water along the Sevier River.

In return for those rights, the government promised to compensate the tribe somehow by the year 2005.

Nielson and Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, introduced bills last week that would give the tribe $514 million worth of compensation, including a variety of water projects for the tribe and a $150 million trust fund, from which the interest could be taken annually for other tribal projects.

Nielson said that settlement would cost less than would providing all the projects the federal government promised in 1965 when it obtained use of the water rights. He said the current cost of providing those originally promised projects would be more than $2 billion.

Nielson told Lujan that the proposed settlement would cost 25 cents on the dollar. He said another reason to settle now is that the current tribal business committee has been much more willing to negotiate than some of its predecessors.

Lujan said he knew little about the issue and intends to study it more fully before deciding whether to support the still-high price tag - which rivals or even exceeds the amount Congress will also soon be asked to authorize to finish construction of the CUP facilities to deliver water to the Wasatch Front.

Concerning whether the federal government or Wasatch Front residents should pay for the Ute water rights, Lujan said, "I'm not making a policy statement here. I'm just trying to understand why the government should pay for them and not the people who will actually use them."

Nielson said the government has subsidized such projects throughout the West to help development, and such help is also needed in Utah - the second most arid state in the nation.

Lujan also wants to know how many more unsettled water rights promises exist so he can determine how and when to pay for them.

3 questions

- Should the federal government pay for Ute water rights in eastern Utah when the water will be transported by the CUP for use along the Wasatch Front?

- Might Wasatch Front residents pay for the water rights directly instead?

- How many other similar, expensive water rights promises has the federal government made throughout the nation and how much will it cost to settle all of them?