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Lawmakers should press on to develop water plan, House speaker says

Developing a plan for water use and needs for the next 50 years may proceed, despite a legal dispute over water rights between the state and two American Indian tribes, he says.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: February 14, 2012

Lawsuits over water rights in southeastern Oklahoma between two American Indian tribes and the state should not prohibit lawmakers from working on water policy this year, House Speaker Kris Steele said Monday.

Steele said water proposals planned by House members include increasing water monitoring, establishing regional water planning groups, improving water infrastructure funding programs and encouraging more water conservation and reuse.

“Implementing a water plan for the state of Oklahoma is critical for being a pro-growth state,” said Steele, R-Shawnee.” We believe that it's time for this generation of lawmakers to step forward and promote policies that will meet our water needs for generations to come.”

The Choctaw and Chickasaw nations filed a federal lawsuit in August claiming the water rights in 22 southeastern Oklahoma counties are provided to them in treaties signed in the 1800s. The tribes also say the state would be violating federal law by adjudicating the waterways; they want to stop the state's plan to sell water storage rights in Sardis Lake to Oklahoma City.

State Attorney General Scott Pruitt filed papers last week asking the state Supreme Court to decide whether the state or the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations have the rights to the water of three major stream systems. He also filed papers stating the federal case should be dismissed based on the federal court's lack of jurisdiction and other legal grounds.

Speaker backs AG

Steele said he supports Pruitt's actions.

“We are still hopeful that the tribal nations' claims concerning southeastern Oklahoma water rights will be resolved outside of court,” Steele said. “Until then, there are several other areas of water policy outside the scope of that litigation that this state must address. We will not be deterred by litigation and will work aggressively this session to lay a foundation for Oklahoma's water future.”

Steele said lawmakers will be drafting legislation from the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan, prepared last year by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

But several groups, including The State Chamber, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and the Oklahoma Municipal League have issued a joint statement asking lawmakers to be cautious before making changes to the water plan. They fear many of the recommendations will increase the size of government, increase costs, adversely affect existing water rights and encroach on private property rights and cause artificial water shortages.

Watching concerns

Steele said he is aware of the groups' concerns.

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