THE epistolary back-and-forth over water in southeastern Oklahoma continued this week between state officials and the heads of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes. Every new volley diminishes the chances that this dispute can or will be resolved amicably.
Choctaw Chief Greg Pyle and Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby wrote to Gov. Mary Fallin on Tuesday to say they wouldn't be dropping their lawsuit against the state until a “reasonable resolution” can be reached. This was in response to a letter Fallin sent last week urging them to do just that.
The tribes filed suit in August against the state and the city of Oklahoma City over a plan that would allow the city to pipe in water from Sardis Lake to meet long-term demand in the metro area. The city agreed to pay off the multimillion-dollar debt that the state had long owed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for construction of the lake.
The tribes claim ownership to the water in 22 southeastern counties. In her letter last week, Fallin pointed out that when they filed their federal lawsuit, the tribes sought to stop the state until the water rights could be determined. That process is called stream adjudication, and the state began that process with a filing in state court.
Fallin told the tribes they were “now taking every action possible to prevent that adjudication from occurring.” Anoatubby and Pyle reiterated in their letter Tuesday that adjudication isn't necessary.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt, during a meeting with The Oklahoman's editorial board earlier Tuesday, said the state was willing to put its action on hold and continue mediation talks — provided the tribes would put the brakes on their federal lawsuit. “Until they do that, we don't believe that we can risk not pursuing the streamwide adjudication at the state level,” Pruitt said. “In fact I think the state will be adversely affected if we don't.”
Fallin met privately with Pyle and Anoatubby in her office Wednesday. Will that meeting bear fruit? Clearly, the tribes don't appear as though they are about to relent. They have said they were kept out of the loop while Oklahoma City was in the process of pursuing the water from Sardis Lake, and say this fight is about protecting the water in the region and ensuring shared management of it. They have undertaken an advertising campaign that essentially casts the tribes as defenders of water against overreach by the state.
The state and the city aren't likely to relent, either. As City Manager Jim Couch told us in December, he doesn't want to be at odds with the tribes or his longtime friend Anoatubby, “but at the same time, we have to protect our interests.”
Pruitt says the state has a strong case and he expects it ultimately will succeed. It appears more and more likely resolution will come via the courts and not through mediation. That could mean many years of wrangling, which Pruitt believes could have lasting, negative effects.
“I'm concerned about relations,” he said. “It is a posture that is unhealthy. At the end of the day, it's not best for Oklahoma. They're putting the state in a position that we have to respond the way that we are. It's not just water. It's gaming. It's hunting and fishing. It's all the areas that affect the state relations with the tribes. It's ratcheting up to a point where it's becoming very intense.”
That intensity may only increase in the months ahead.