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.
The basin also includes Lake Atoka and McGee Creek Reservoir, of which the city is permitted 131,000 acre feet of water, compared to 80,000 acre feet from its original source, the North Canadian River system.
Last year, the city used more than 157,000 acre feet of water.
“It's critical today and it's critical for the future,” Couch said of the Kiamichi basin.
Brian Vance, spokesman for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said current talks are taking place during a 60-day stay approved by a district judge. The stay is the third one allowed by the courts since talks stalled earlier in 2012.
“Talks are progressive, at least to the level that both sides have agreed to extend the negotiations, so I think both sides remain hopeful that there will be some sort of resolution,” Vance said.
But while a settlement agreement is possible in 2013, it will be some time before the litigation is over. Any settlement agreement adopted next year will ultimately need approval from U.S. Congress and could take years to finally resolve.