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Federal judge tosses out most of tribal water rights lawsuit against US, Utah

The E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2016. A federal judge there last week tossed out 12 of 16 claims in a water rights lawsuit against the U.S. and Utah.

The E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2016. A federal judge there last week tossed out 12 of 16 claims in a water rights lawsuit against the U.S. and Utah. (Mark Van Scyoc, Shutterstock)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge last week tossed out most of a water rights lawsuit filed by the Ute Indian Tribe against the U.S. Department of Interior, the state of Utah and the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.

The lawsuit, first filed over three years ago, claimed that federal and state agencies discriminated against tribal land water rights among other violations; however, Washington, D.C. District Judge Carl J. Nichols on Sept. 15 tossed out 12 of the 16 lawsuit claims in the federal court and sent the four remaining claims to the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.

In a 27-page decision, Nichols dismissed claims over trust, contract, jurisdictional and civil rights violations based on a variety of reasons, including expired statute of limitation in some instances and failure to show "cause of action" in other claims.

"All along, the state of Utah has maintained there was no discrimination regarding the tribe's water rights, and we're grateful the judge affirmed that," said Teresa Wilhelmsen, state engineer and the director of the Utah Division of Water Rights, in a statement Tuesday. "Difficult emotions can arise from cases like this, and the state is ready to move forward. It intends to continue working with the tribe in the administration of the tribe's significant water rights in a cooperative and mutually productive way."

The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation first filed the lawsuit against the Department of Interior in 2018. The tribe alleged that the United States breached several trusts, contractual and constitutional obligations to the tribe. It also claimed that the Central Utah Project Completion Act of 1992 ultimately took tribal property instead of settling the tribe's water rights and water rights claims.

The state of Utah intervened in the case on what the Utah Attorney General's Office called "having a direct interest in the administration of water across the state on behalf of all Utah water users, including the tribe." However, the state, then-Gov. Gary Herbert and Central Utah Water Conservancy District were added as defendants in the lawsuit last year.

Nichols began hearing arguments on the defendants' motions in the case earlier in July before the ruling last week. While some claims were dismissed as a result of expired statutes, the judge dismissed claims over the Central Utah Project Completion Act because he said the tribe had waived claims or settled them in a $125 million settlement with the U.S. government in 2012.

There were four claims that were weren't dismissed but instead transferred over to the Utah federal court. All four claims are related to the execution and implementation of the Green River Block Exchange, which is "a Utah-wide water-exchange project under which Utah agrees to forgo its water rights from part of the Green River to help the United States meet various federal objectives," according to the decision.

It's unclear when that case will resume in Salt Lake City.

KSL.com reached out to legal representatives for the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation but did not receive a response regarding the case at press time.

Contributing: Jacob Klopfenstein

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