Failure by Oklahoma and American Indian tribal officials to negotiate to resolve water rights issues could lead to a water war that could last for decades if the disputes end up in the courts, a joint legislative water committee was told Wednesday.
It's clear tribes have significant rights to water in Oklahoma, but it's uncertain how much water the tribes still have, where the water is and whether the use of the water should be limited, Taiawagi (Tai) Helton, an attorney and professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, told the panel. The panel is tasked with coming up with policies on Oklahoma's water needs in the next 50 years.
“I would encourage both sides to negotiate,” Helton said. “The tribes have a strong argument that they have a right to a substantial amount of water, but it would take years of litigation to determine what those rights are.
“In the meantime we would have an incredible amount of conflict between neighbors; we would spend an immense amount of money on litigation; and we would delay development in ways that would do no good for anyone. All the while, the ground is getting drier under our feet.”
Dean Couch, an attorney for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said the alternative to negotiations is a federal adjudication process that may be even more difficult.
Helton said developing a good dialogue between state and tribal officials would encourage both sides to come to a solution.
Oklahoma has had success in developing compacts with tribes in areas such as tobacco and gaming, so it's likely water negotiations could be fruitful. Legislators also could consider other ways to negotiate with the 39 federally recognized tribes in the state, he said. Montana, for example, created a state agency to talk with tribes about water issues.
Sen. Brian Crain, co-chairman of the legislative panel, said he supports talking with the tribes.
“The argument can be made that we have superior rights to the Indian tribes in regards to water; you can also make a great argument that the tribes have a superior right to the state's rights,” said Crain, R-Tulsa. “This is a great opportunity for us to negotiate with our tribes, build our connections for the betterment of the people of the state of Oklahoma.”
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