Wyoming May Owe Utah Tribe Water From Green River, Flaming Gorge

The Ute Indian Tribe in Utah claims its people are owed roughly 500,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Green River and Flaming Gorge, which is partly in Wyoming, but the matter is murky and unresolved.

Mark Heinz

June 26, 20234 min read

The Ute Tribe says its entitled to 500,000 acre-feet of water a year from Flaming Gorge/Green River.
The Ute Tribe says its entitled to 500,000 acre-feet of water a year from Flaming Gorge/Green River. (Getty Images)

The Ute Indian Tribe in Utah claims it has been stiffed out of water the tribe’s owed from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the Green River, but the matter seems far from settled, some Wyoming water experts said.

During a recent “Crisis on the Colorado River” conference in Boulder, a representative of the Ute Tribe said a 1965 agreement with the federal government entitles the tribe to 500,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Flaming Gorge/ Green River, part of which is in Wyoming. An acre foot of water is the amount that would flood an acre to the depth of one foot.

However, the government stiffed the tribe, has never provided the water “and we’ve had to just watch it flow past us every year,” tribal Vice Chairman Christopher Tabee told Cowboy State Daily.

The Green River and Flaming Gorge are part of the Colorado River system, to which numerous Native American tribes claim water rights.

No Certainty

University of Wyoming Law Professor Jason Robison is an expert in the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which set the precedent for water rights among Native American tribes the seven Colorado River states and Mexico. The states include Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico in the Upper Basin, and California, Arizona and Nevada in the Lower Basin.

Robison told Cowboy State Daily that the matter of the Ute’s tribe’s water rights claim remains uncertain.

“The unresolved status of the Ute Indian Tribe’s water right is indeed a disconcerting issue within the Upper Basin,” he said.

Wyoming’s State Engineer Brandon Gebhart, who represents Wyoming on the Upper Colorado River Commission, could tell Cowboy State Daily little about the tribe’s claim.

“I understand very little about the Ute Indian Tribe's claims to water other than that it is a very complicated, and unresolved, issue,” he said.

Tribes Claim A Quarter Of The Water

Tribal water rights on the Colorado are significant and have at times been disputed in court.

Roughly a quarter of all the water in the Colorado River Basin is claimed by tribes, according to a policy brief report from the Water and Tribes Initiative that Robison shared with Cowboy State Daily.

“There are 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Twenty two of these tribes have recognized rights to use 3.2 million acre-feet of Colorado River system water annually, or approximately 22 to 26% of the Basin’s average annual water supply,” the report states.

Recent Defeats In Court

A U.S. District Court document Gebhart shared with Cowboy State Daily shows that in 2021, Judge Carl Nichols dismissed a host of the Ute tribe’s claims related to water rights, including some tied to the 1965 agreement.

More recently, the Navajo Nation claimed the state of Arizona had failed in its duty to provide its people with water from the river.

Since 2003, the nation has been petitioning federal courts for water rights claiming that Arizona and the federal government, through the Bureau of Reclamation, are obligated to provide the nation with clean drinking water from the Colorado River. 

That case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

SCOTUS this month ruled to dismiss that lawsuit in a 5-4 split decision.  

Just How Much Water Is Owed To Utes?

The latest round in federal court was part of a “century-old dispute about water rights” between the Ute Tribe and the federal government, Nichols stated in his U.S. District Court Opinion.

As for the claim to 500,000 acre-feet of water per year, that’s within a range cited in by the Water and Tribes Initiative, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation and the Ten Tribes Partnership.

The Water and Tribes’ report indicates that the Ute Tribes’ initial rights claim is for 370,370 acre-feet each year.

However, there could be some unresolved claims included, according to a report from the Bureau of Reclamation and Ten Tribes. With those included, the Ute Tribe’s entire claim would be 549,685 acre-feet per year.

In some cases, shortages in tribal water rights result from inadequate infrastructure to deliver the water to tribal members who need it for drinking, irrigation and other uses, according to the report.

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter