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Tribes sue Oklahoma City over water transfers

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board in an effort to halt any new sales and exports of southeastern Oklahoma water without agreement from the tribes.
BY RANDY ELLIS rellis@opubco.com Modified: August 19, 2011 at 12:14 pm •  Published: August 18, 2011
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The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board in an effort to halt future sales and exports of Southeastern Oklahoma water without agreement from the tribes.

The tribes are asking the court to issue a permanent injunction to halt the proposed transfer of water to Oklahoma City from Sardis Lake unless the transaction has been negotiated with the tribes or approved by the court.

The tribes are not asking the court to interfere with water transfers that are already happening, said Michael Burrage, attorney for the tribes.

“We're not seeking to cut off anybody's water right now,” Burrage said, noting that tribal officials are aware that would be devastating to Oklahoma City in the midst of the current drought.

However, current water transfer agreements may be an issue as the lawsuit moves forward, he said.

Oklahoma City has been obtaining a portion of its water supply from Southeastern Oklahoma since 1962 and currently gets about half its water from lakes that are within Choctaw and Chickasaw Nation territories, said Jim Couch, city manager for Oklahoma City.

The tribes want the requested injunction to also cover proposed or potential future water transfers to Texas or anywhere else outside tribal boundaries of waters that originate within the tribes' jurisdiction.

Couch and Oklahoma Water Resources Board officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

‘No realistic alternative'

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations issued a joint news release Thursday stating they have been trying for at least a decade to establish government-to-government negotiations with the state to resolve water rights issues.

“Unfortunately, our efforts have been unsuccessful, leaving us no realistic alternative to legal action,” Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said in the news release.

Choctaw Chief Gregory E. Pyle added that “a lack of any real progress on the initiation of meaningful government-to-government talks on these matters leads us to believe further inaction would simply mean the deepening of our present challenges.”

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations claim they own the rights to water within their tribal territories by virtue of the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which gave the tribes jurisdiction over much of southeastern Oklahoma.

The tribes noted in the lawsuit that a 1906 act of Congress allotted land rights within their boundaries to individuals — both Indian and non-Indian — but contend their water rights within tribal boundaries remain intact.

The Choctaw Nation holds an undivided 75 percent interest and the Chickasaw Nation holds an undivided 25 percent interest to the water rights within a tribal territory that encompasses all or parts of 22 counties, they contend.

The counties are Atoka, Bryan, Carter, Choctaw, Coal, Garvin, Grady, McClain, Murray, Haskell, Hughes, Jefferson, Johnston, Latimer, Le Flore, Love, Marshall, McCurtain, Pittsburg, Pontotoc, Pushmataha and Stephens.

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