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Oklahoma City 2013: Water rights could be year's biggest issue

Of all the issues facing Oklahoma City in 2013, the contentious water rights lawsuit may be the most important.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD Published: December 17, 2012

With a growing population and a drought that seems intent on hanging around, the most critical issue for Oklahoma City in 2013 may be securing access to an important source of drinking water.

The city's top decision-makers said resolution to a water rights lawsuit filed against the city and state in 2011 is close, and that they are optimistic a settlement agreement will be reached in 2013.

Two prominent tribes — the Chickasaws and Choctaws — sued the city, state and other entities in 2011 over water rights in a broad swath of southeast Oklahoma that provides more than half of the drinking water in Oklahoma City and the rest of the metro. The tribes' claim extends to the pipeline that actually transports the water into central Oklahoma.

The lawsuit remains pending, but the parties are engaged in a parallel path of mediation. City Manager Jim Couch said he is optimistic the latest round of mediation is working.

“I'm a lot more (optimistic) than I was a few months ago,” Couch said Wednesday. “Hopefully we can come up with a settlement that will meet everybody's needs.”

The lawsuit was filed after the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust purchased limited water storage rights to Sardis Lake, which is covered by the tribes' claim, from the state for nearly $28 million in 2010.

The reservoir is one of several fed by rivers and streams in the Kiamichi River Basin, a boomerang-shaped area that begins at the Arkansas state line and includes parts of six southeast Oklahoma counties.

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