Gov. Mary Fallin asked leaders of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations on Thursday to withdraw their federal lawsuit against Oklahoma over tribal water rights in the southeastern part of the state.
“If you are truly interested in mediation over litigation, you will dismiss your lawsuit,” the governor wrote in a letter to Chief Greg Pyle of the Choctaw Nation and Gov. Bill Anoatubby of the Chickasaw Nation.
“I am asking for the sake of our citizens, businesses, taxpayers and frankly, our image as a state, not to mention the huge cost our state will have to bear for a prolonged lawsuit, that you continue to work with the citizens and State of Oklahoma to find a resolution through mediation,” she wrote.
What the tribes want
The lawsuit filed by the tribes asks a federal judge to stop the state's plan to sell water storage rights to Sardis Lake to Oklahoma City.
Fallin said an ongoing mediation process is the best way to resolve disputes between the state and the tribes. If talks continue, the state will not file a separate state court action — as part of what is known as a stream adjudication process — to determine the extent of tribal water rights in their historic territories.
Pyle and Anoatubby issued a joint statement, saying they urge the state to recognize that the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations have substantial water rights protected by federal law.
They say the state court action would be “neither necessary nor productive,” and that “federal court is the only legal forum that has jurisdiction over appropriate issues.”
The statement said the tribes hope a resolution can be reached outside of the court system, although the state seems committed to its chosen course of action.
Fallin calls action necessary
Fallin said in her letter that state officials have repeatedly told the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations that the state court action is a necessary response to their lawsuit.
The federal lawsuit filed in August by the tribes claims the water rights in question are provided to them in treaties signed in the 1800s. The tribes also claim that the state would be violating federal law by adjudicating the waterways in southeastern Oklahoma, court documents show.
The tribes are claiming rights to all the waters in 22 counties in southeastern Oklahoma. Fallin said in her letter that the tribes asked the federal court to stop the state from taking actions related to those waters “unless and until a comprehensive (stream) adjudication … has been completed” to determine tribal rights.
“Working in good faith, the State of Oklahoma agreed to initiate just such adjudication so that a court of law could finally and conclusively determine what rights, if any, the Nations have to the waters of those 22 counties in southeastern Oklahoma,” Fallin wrote. “Strangely enough, you have now indicated you have changed your mind and have cried ‘foul' over the State's agreement, and are now taking every action possible to prevent that adjudication from occurring.”
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