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Duchesne city finally gets title to water rights

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DUCHESNE CITY — Fifteen months after Congress unanimously passed a measure giving Duchesne city legal title to its water rights, the legal conundrum — which spanned 46 years — was officially settled when the deed arrived at City Hall.

Former Duchesne Mayor Kim Hamlin, who led the charge over the past several years to settle the matter once and for all, was surprised when the deed — which arrived Friday, Jan. 4 — was presented to him at swearing-in ceremonies for three City Council members and newly elected Mayor Clint Park.

A little over a year ago, Duchesne received its own "red lined" copy of the Duchesne City Water Rights Conveyance Act, the House bill establishing its water rights. But the deal still wasn't signed, sealed and delivered until the actual deed arrived in the mail.

Salt Lake attorney Craig Smith has been involved in drafting the legislation and getting it through Congress for the past three years.

"Duchesne has tried off and on to accomplish this in other ways since the 1940s," Smith said. "We had good cooperation from our congressional delegation and the Ute Tribe."

Under the legislation, the city can waive the water connection fee for any member of the tribe or connections for any tribal property within Duchesne city.

Just how Duchesne ended up with no water rights in its name is as interesting as the decades-old attempts to remedy the situation.

The need for legislation can be traced back to May 27, 1902, when the city's water rights were put in the name of the old U.S. Indian Service. Duchesne was actually created by the federal government, and the city's water rights were appropriated by U.S. Calvary Capt. G.B. Hall, an Indian agent to the Uintah Valley Reservation.

The water right was initially granted to irrigate Indian allotments on the Uintah Indian Reservation and to supply irrigation and domestic water in the town.

In 1920, a change in the application stated that the entire appropriation was to be used for "municipal and domestic purposes in the town of Duchesne, Utah." Despite the change, the title remained in the name of the U.S. Indian Service, preventing Duchesne from obtaining clear title even though the federal agency no longer exists.

Exhaustive historical research was undertaken to demonstrate that the water rights were appropriated for the use and benefit of Duchesne and not for the Ute Tribe or some other federal purpose, Smith said.

Hamlin estimates it cost the city between $40,000 and $50,000 to clear the title, and for the first time in 95 years Duchesne owns the water it has always relied on.

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