Negotiations between the state of Oklahoma and two large American Indian tribes over water rights may resume after grinding to a halt recently.
A federal judge in Oklahoma City granted a 60-day stay Tuesday, giving both sides a breather before a water rights lawsuit continues. A lawsuit filed by the state against the federal government was stayed, as well.
Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby and Choctaw Nation Chief Gregory Pyle issued a joint statement following the judge's decision.
“We are hopeful that the stay of court proceedings agreed to by all parties will mark a positive shift in our efforts to mediate these issues,” Anoatubby and Pyle said in the statement. “We have believed for some time that state and tribal leaders are fully capable of settling this matter around a negotiating table.”
The Oklahoma Supreme Court had agreed to decide a stream adjudication lawsuit filed on behalf of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board in late February, but the U.S. Justice Department removed the case to federal court two weeks ago.
Joint motions filed by the water board, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations and the federal government reveal negotiations are ongoing. In recent weeks, however, tensions had mounted as both sides released statements to the media calling for the other to acquiesce.
“In these circumstances, the parties to this action have concluded that a 60-day stay ... would be beneficial to the mediation process,” lawyers wrote in the motion. “Even if the mediation does not resolve all issues, continued consultation ... may enable the parties to identify specific procedures that would facilitate the resolution of the issues that remain in dispute.”
History of dispute
The tribes filed a lawsuit in federal court in August 2011, essentially laying claim to the water rights in Oklahoma's wettest region — a 22-county area stretching from Grady County to the southeast corner of the state.
The state Water Board's adjudication suit was seeking to gain control of the same water rights, court records show.
Waterways at the heart of the dispute include the Kiamichi River and the Muddy Boggy and Clear Boggy stream systems.
The tribes claim the water rights were granted to them through a series of treaties signed with the federal government in the 1830s.
They say any unauthorized removal or export of the water is a direct violation of federal law.
Before filing their lawsuit in August 2011, tribal leaders claimed they'd been trying to negotiate with the state of Oklahoma for years — but to no avail.
“A lack of any real progress on the initiation of meaningful government-
CONTRIBUTING: Staff Writers Nolan Clay and Randy Ellis