Published March 11, 2018
FT. DUCHESNE, UTAH — The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation has commenced litigation against the United States of America for its role, as the trustee of Tribal water and related resources, in the mismanagement, misappropriation, and diminishment of the Tribe’s water rights and related resources that have taken place for more than a century. The Tribe has filed two separate lawsuits: one in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, the other in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The former requests significant monetary relief to compensate the Tribe for past harms, while the latter requests equitable relief to hold the United States accountable to the Tribe now and into the future.
The Ute Tribe’s water rights derive from two separate sources of law. On March 1, 1899, the United States Congress enacted legislation recognizing the “paramount” rights of the Ute Indians to the water on their Reservation. This 1899 Act established a duty on the part of the Secretary of the Interior to “prescribe such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary to secure to the Indians the quantity of water needed for their present and prospective wants, and to otherwise protect the rights and interests of the Indians…” Further, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1908 decision in Winters v. United States, the United States impliedly reserved water rights for the Tribe as necessary for Tribal members to develop and sustain a permanent homeland on the Uintah & Ouray Reservation. The Tribe’s water rights, whether based on statute or the Winters doctrine, are held by the United States in trust for the Tribe.
History reflects that the need for water to sustain a permanent homeland on the Tribe’s Reservation has always been both critical and substantial. Tribal members’ reliance on the United States to provide water is encapsulated in a 1916 letter from the regional Indian Service Superintendent to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs detailing the Superintendent’s interview with Chipeta, the widely respected wife of Chief Ouray. Chipeta recounted being persuaded to move from a good home in Colorado to an allotment on the Uncompahgre Reservation, relying on the Government’s promise that she and other Tribal members would be given sustainable lands and that water would be placed on said lands. The Government failed to follow through on this promise. Without water available to cultivate these arid lands, Chipeta was forced to abandon the home she built on the allotment.
The Tribe’s claims against the United States focus, in large part, on the Uintah Indian Irrigation Project (“UIIP”), a Congressionally-authorized Indian irrigation project designed to irrigate nearly 88,000 acres of Reservation land. The UIIP is a trust asset owned and operated by the United States for the benefit of the Tribe. Today, the UIIP is only delivering irrigation water to about 61,000 acres.
The Tribe alleges that this disparity is the result of various breaches of the United States’ fiduciary obligations. The Tribe hopes that this litigation will mark a substantial step toward making the Tribe whole again following over a century of harm at the hands of its trustee.