Nearly a quarter century ago, in funding the Central Utah Project, the U.S. government "borrowed" water rights from the Ute Indian tribe in order to deliver water along the Wasatch Front. That loan was to be paid back by the year 2005, and it's not too soon to start thinking how it should be done.
Rep. Howard C. Nielson, R-Utah, and Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, have introduced bills that would give the tribe $514 million worth of compensation - a variety of water projects and a $150 million trust fund from which the Utes could draw interest for tribal projects.However, U.S. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. isn't rushing to embrace the idea and wants to study the issue. That's understandable in the light of crushing budget deficits.
In addition, he wants answers to some questions, namely: (1) Why should the federal government pick up the tab? (2) Why don't Utah residents pay for the water they will be using? (3) What other water rights promises has the federal government made throughout the region and what will they all cost?
Those are legitimate concerns, but there are solid reasons why Interior and Congress should approve the Nielson and Garn measures.
First of all, the $514 million settlement works out to about 25 cents on the dollar. Doing all the projects the government originally promised would take some $2 billion. And the current tribal Business Committee has been more willing to negotiate than some in the past. That could change again in the future if the deal isn't nailed down.
As for question No. 1, when the promises were made to the Utes in 1965, the federal government was paying the full cost of the CUP. It committed itself to reimburse the tribe for its water rights.
On question No. 2, Utahns have since assumed repayment of much of the CUP construction cost, but could hardly be expected to finance water projects for the Indians out of state funds. Cost of CUP water already will be relatively expensive. Another $500 million out of Utah pockets could be prohibitive.
Question No. 3 needs to be answered as soon as possible. In fact, it would be astounding if the federal bureaucracy has lost track of its water project commitments in the West - astounding, but knowing the government, not improbable.
The necessary $514 million does not have to come all at once. It should be phased in over the 15 years remaining before the 2005 deadline.
In any case, the government cannot back out of promises made to the Ute Indians. The whole history of U.S.-Indian relations has been littered with broken promises. That can't be allowed to happen this time.