After 11 years of waiting often standing as the biggest stumbling block to an agreement - the Ute Indian Tribe is now just one step away from striking a deal with the state to protect its water rights.
"We've been waiting for this time," said Irene Cuch, tribal vice chairwoman Thursday when Gov. Norm Bangerter signed the pact. "It means the state is willing to protect the Utes' water rights."Congress must approve the agreement before it can become official. The federal government acts as trustee for the tribe.
The agreement includes approximately 80 pages of details as to how much water can be used on the tribe's lands in eastern Utah and what rules to follow when diverting water, among other things.
Not a word has changed in the agreement since the State Legislature approved it in a 1980 special session. The thing that has changed is the tribe's unity behind the pact.
Tribal laws require all such agreements to be ratified by a vote of tribal members. The laws also require a 70 percent voter turnout. The first such vote not only attracted fewer than 70 percent of the voters, those who did show up rejected the agreement.
Cuch said the tribe has had disagreements with the Central Utah Project, which borrowed water rights from the tribe nearly a quarter of a century ago to provide water for the Wasatch Front.
A bill currently before Congress would grant the tribe $514 million in compensation for the loan.
A variety of other problems stood in the way, including arguments over hunting and fishing, said Stephen Boyden, attorney for the tribe.
Finally, in February 1988, more than 70 percent of the tribe's voters went to the polls and approved the agreement.
But Thursday's signing doesn't change the way water issues are being handled. The state has followed the unratified agreement for nearly a decade.
"Once the Legislature had passed it, we started operating under it," said Dee Hansen, state director of Natural Resources.