After five years of confidential negotiations, the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations have reached an agreement with the State of Oklahoma over water in southeast Oklahoma. The deal has been praised by state leaders as a historic accord that ends the tribes’ lawsuit that blocked Oklahoma City’s plan to pump water out of the region. But the deal still has to be sold to tribe members in that part of the state.
At last week’s announcement of the water deal in Oklahoma City, Gov. Mary Fallin took the stage with the chief and governor of two of the state’s largest tribal nations. The theme was “unity” and the atmosphere was celebratory.
The tone was more sober a few days later at a small gathering in Hugo. Choctaw Chief Gary Batton told his members the agreement was the best the tribe could hope for.
“Am I joyous about this? Maybe not, but is it something I can live with and support? Yes it is,” Batton said.
The Choctaw Nations is holding community meetings across southeast Oklahoma this month to explain the complicated water deal that’s been negotiated in secret over the last five years.
The settlement ends a 2011 lawsuit brought by the Choctaws and Chickasaws to block Oklahoma City from pumping water out of Sardis Lake through a 100-mile-long pipeline. The tribes argued a 19th-century treaty gave Native Americans control of the water.
“They were wanting to take our water from southeastern Oklahoma,” Batton said.
All parties involved agreed to a gag order that kept settlement negotiations confidential. These community meetings are giving the public its first peek into deliberations. Michael Burrage, the tribes’ attorney and a former federal judge, said the state pushed hard to keep oversight in its own hands or court system.
“The tribes, I don’t want to say they distrust those people [the state], but we sort of do,” Burrage told the Hugo audience. “We wanted the settlement agreement enacted into federal law.”
NEW DEAL, PAST WORRIES
Under the agreement, a new commission of tribal and state representatives will evaluate any future plans to sell southeastern Oklahoma water to an out-of-state interest. It also establishes rules that govern the quantity of water that can be moved in-state, and under what conditions those transfers would be permissible. The rules were designed to protect Sardis Lake tourism, a major economic driver in southeast Oklahoma.
Oklahoma City already taps into nearby Atoka Lake, and the city has fewer restrictions for pumping its water. Burrage compared Atoka to “a mud hole” and said the water settlement will prevent the same thing from happening to Sardis Lake.
Some of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribe members at the Hugo meeting pointed to broken promises of the past, and wondered if the state would live up to its end of the deal. Chief Batton said federal recognition of the agreement will force the state to comply.
“If we get this passed into legislation, then as soon as we can show that they’re watering their lawns while our lake is being dropped, then we can file a suit and get immediate relief so that they can’t get any more water,” Batton said. “And I keep saying the thing that makes me feel a little bit better in my gut is that even though we’ve gotten just a portion of it, it’s better than nothing, and Oklahoma City did not take all of the water.”
In fact, attorney Burrage said Oklahoma City still hasn’t received a permit for water from Sardis.
“The tribes are not agreeing that Oklahoma City gets a permit for this water,” Burrage said. “All we’re agreeing to is that any permit that’s issued has to meet these standards in regard to conservation, lake levels, in-stream flows. But we’re not agreeing that they get it.”
AN ACCEPTABLE COMPROMISE
Tribe members filing out of the Hugo Community Center generally seemed pleased with what they heard about the historic water agreement. Linda Duggan said Choctaw leaders fought hard.
“When a compromise comes nobody gets everything they want,” Duggan said. “And the concern of the Choctaw Nation and a lot of Indians is to preserve our rights, and I think they’re doing a good job at looking at that.”
Duggan and other tribe members are eager to resolve Oklahoma’s long-standing water dispute, but they’re still a little uneasy, because the U.S. Congress gets the final word.
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