The Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed Thursday to decide whether the state or two American Indian tribes have the rights to the water of three major stream systems in southeastern Oklahoma.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt filed a lawsuit earlier this month on behalf of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board asking the Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction over a comprehensive stream adjudication to determine water rights.
The Chickasaw and Choctaw nations claim the water rights were granted to them in the 1830s through a series of treaties with the federal government and that any removal of water is in direct violation of federal law.
Hearing planned in April
The high court's refusal to take jurisdiction would have meant the lawsuit would have to be filed in district court, which would be a lengthier process because a ruling there could be appealed to the Supreme Court.
All nine justices concurred with the decision to accept jurisdiction of the case. An April 19 hearing is scheduled before a Supreme Court referee.
“We're pleased with the Supreme Court's swift and decisive decision to take jurisdiction in this case,” said Diane Clay, Pruitt's spokeswoman. “We believe the action shows the court's understanding that water rights issues are important to all Oklahomans.”
Tribes question jurisdiction
Tribal leaders last week asked a federal judge to issue a partial summary judgment in their water rights case against the state of Oklahoma. The tribes Thursday again questioned the propriety of the state's lawsuit; Pruitt identified nearly 200 defendants in his lawsuit.
“Stream adjudication will be a lengthy, costly and unnecessary process for the landowners the state has chosen to sue, and for all Oklahoma taxpayers,” said Tony Choate, a spokesman for the tribes. “We intend to continue to pursue the matter in federal court, which we think has proper jurisdiction.”
In a general stream adjudication, a court decides the water rights in a particular stream system. In this case, the high court would be asked to determine who has the rights to stream and surface water in the Kiamichi, Muddy Boggy and Clear Boggy watersheds.