News / 

Ute Tribe calls dismissal of water rights claims a 'miscarriage of justice'

Low water levels are pictured at Starvation Reservoir in Duchesne County on Aug. 9. The reservoir is located within the general area of the Uintah-Ouray Reservation. The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior in 2018 over water rights. The lawsuit was expanded to include Utah entities last year.

Low water levels are pictured at Starvation Reservoir in Duchesne County on Aug. 9. The reservoir is located within the general area of the Uintah-Ouray Reservation. The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior in 2018 over water rights. The lawsuit was expanded to include Utah entities last year. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — Leaders of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation announced Wednesday that they plan to seek further judicial review after a federal judge last week dismissed most of the claims within their water rights lawsuit against U.S. and Utah government entities, calling the decision a "miscarriage of justice."

Washington, D.C. District Judge Carl J. Nichols on Sept. 15 tossed out 12 of the 16 lawsuit claims in the federal court and transferred the four remaining claims — all four related to Utah's 2019 execution and implementation of the Green River Block Exchange — to the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.

The decision dismissed all claims of trust, contract, jurisdictional and civil rights violations filed against the federal government in the 2018 lawsuit, as well as many claims against Utah entities.

Nichols wrote in his 27-page ruling that the statute of limitation had expired in some instances and there was a failure to show "cause of action" in other claims. Teresa Wilhelmsen, state engineer and the director of the Utah Division of Water Rights, said in a statement Tuesday that "the state of Utah has maintained there was no discrimination regarding the tribe's water rights, and we're grateful the judge affirmed that."

But leaders of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, which is the second-largest reservation in the U.S., see the ruling differently. In a news release Wednesday, the Tribal Business Committee, which is the governing council of the tribe, asserted that the decision "is the product of a selective interpretation of the law and a superficial resolution of the issues" and that the issues are "ongoing in nature."

They added they were "disappointed" that the key issues brought up in the lawsuit were dismissed in what they view as a hasty decision.

"To date, the tribe has never been compensated for the theft of its water," Tribe Business Committee leaders said in a statement. "The tribe has a vested property interest in its Indian reserved water rights. Yet, the federal government's failure to recognize the tribe's reserved water rights leads to abundant tribal water flowing downstream for junior-priority water users to appropriate for free. These are tribal property rights being stolen from underneath us."

Leaders said they plan to "continue to vigorously litigate its claims through the appellate process" after the ruling on Sept. 15.

They added they believe the federal government can't "simultaneously seek to wield complete administrative control over the tribe's waters while at the same time insisting to the federal courts that the United States has no legally enforceable liability to the tribe in relation to the federal government's management of the tribe's waters."

Meanwhile, it's still not clear when that case regarding the four claims that were not dropped will resume in Salt Lake City.

SIGN UP FOR THE KSL.COM NEWSLETTER

Catch up on the top news and features from KSL.com, sent weekly.
By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to KSL.com's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

KSL Weather Forecast