Leaders of both tribes involved in a federal lawsuit against the state over water rights in southeastern Oklahoma expressed optimism Wednesday about negotiations on the issue.
“I have hope for the future,” Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby said after speaking to about 20 lieutenant governors attending the National Lieutenant Governors Association's annual meeting in downtown Oklahoma City. “The Texas case, we have that behind us now. I think there's time to really focus.”
The U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled in favor of Oklahoma that Texas can't reach across the border to claim a share of the Kiamichi River to serve the growing Fort Worth area.
The 2011 federal lawsuit was filed by the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations in an attempt to stop Oklahoma's plans to draw water from Sardis Lake in Pushmataha County and deliver it to Oklahoma City. The tribes are claiming water rights in much of southeastern Oklahoma, challenging the authority of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to authorize the sale and transfer of water from property within tribal jurisdictions without first negotiating permission from the tribes.
The lawsuit has been on hold for more than a year as the state and the tribes negotiate. A mediator is no longer involved, which is considered a good sign.
“The mediator got us to a real good point,” said Brian McClain, executive director for legislative advocacy and water resources for the Choctaw Nation. “We can move forward.”
All involved in the mediation talks are limited on what they can say because of a gag order that's been put in place by a federal judge.
Asked for a comment, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, through a spokesman, seemed encouraged.
“The governor is optimistic these negotiations are moving in the right direction and will result in a resolution that is fair to all Oklahomans,” said Alex Weintz, her communications director.
During his talk to lieutenant governors, Anoatubby talked about partnerships between his tribe and the state and an increasing tendency in the past 25 years to work together.
Asked why his tribe filed the lawsuit, Anoatubby said, “It's about all of us in southeastern Oklahoma, the tribes and the communities, making sure there's equity, making sure the resource is protected and that we have long-term sustainability.”
McClain, who also spoke to the lieutenant governors, said it's difficult to say how close the sides are to a resolution.
“I think the governor (Anoatubby) said it right,” McClain said. “We're after a long-term solution so you don't try to put a time frame on anything you're trying to do for long term. And that's where we're all at.”