Tribes' suit would protect water resources
BY NEAL MCCALEB
Saturday, March 17, 2012
3/17/12 at 4:48 AM
The state of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City have misrepresented the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations' recent legal action. They have framed the issue as a contest for ownership that "threatens the water supply for all Oklahomans."
Actually, the nations filed their federal suit to stop a premature deal between the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, a deal that would transfer control of nearly 90 percent of the water in Sardis Lake to Oklahoma City.
The nations filed their narrowly focused suit after several unsuccessful attempts to start a meaningful dialogue on water rights and claims with the state. Instead, the state chose a potentially economically devastating course of action for southeastern Oklahoma.
The water resources of southeastern Oklahoma, which include Sardis Lake, are vital to the economic development and quality of life for the Oklahomans in this region of our state. And by filing their federal suit, Gov. Bill Anoatubby of the Chickasaw Nation and Chief Greg Pyle of the Choctaw Nation made the responsible decision not only for southeastern Oklahoma, but for all of Oklahoma.
Since 1997, the Oklahoma State Water Plan has called for the state to engage with the nations to address the very issues raised in the lawsuit. Frankly, the state has failed to act upon the recommendation for 15 years. The only talks started recently when a federal judge ordered them to take place after the nations filed their suit.
The nations have consistently said for 20 years that the state cannot legally take unilateral action to export water from their homelands. Federal law prohibits the state from acting alone based on long-standing statutes and has consistently reaffirmed treaties that protect tribal rights and the sustainability of their treaty-granted territory.
While the state and Oklahoma City also portray the legal actions of the nations as a threat to property rights and the future of Oklahoma, in reality the actual threat is the OWRB's costly general stream adjudication.
Every Oklahoma citizen who lives within the three named basins is impacted by OWRB's decision to pursue general stream adjudication. This decision is completely unnecessary when you consider that the nations' lawsuit doesn't disrupt existing water rights. Stream adjudication pits neighbor against neighbor and citizens against their state.
The state and Oklahoma City also have alleged that the Choctaw Nation paid for a study to determine the monetary value of the water in southeastern Oklahoma for a possible water sale. Here is a missing fact: The study was conducted by the Choctaw Nation more than a decade ago on behalf of the state when the state, not the nations, was pressing to sell water to Texas - a deal that never happened. The state also hired economists to help determine the value of the water.
You can read the reports on OWRB's website. At the end of the day, it is the state - not the nations - that has the track record of wanting to sell water to Texas.
While the nations have a vested interest in protecting and conserving the water resources of their homelands in southeastern Oklahoma, they are also interested in seeing the entire state prosper.
To that end, the most critical issue we face as Oklahomans is how best to conserve and manage our precious water resources in a constructive and cooperative manner. Nothing is more essential to our future, whether you live in rural or urban Oklahoma, own a business or a home or just like to fish and boat.
The nations are committed to stewardship and the sustainable management of our state's water resources to make certain we have enough water to take care of Oklahoma for generations to come.
Together, we need to support every region of the state as well as every industry, including the three biggest drivers of our state's economy - agriculture, energy and tourism.
Neal McCaleb is a former Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs and a former Oklahoma legislator.
The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board would transfer control of nearly 90 percent of the water in Sardis Lake to Oklahoma City. TOM GILBERT/Tulsa World file
Neal McCaleb: The nations are committed to stewardship and the sustainable management of our state's water resources to take care of Oklahoma for generations to come.