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State and Tribes Still Wrestling Over Water Rights in Oklahoma

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While the State of Oklahoma won the Supreme Court Water War with Texas, its in-state skirmish is still simmering.

This battle — between the state and the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations — is being waged within Oklahoma’s borders. But unlike the Red River water dispute, reports from the front lines of Oklahoma’s tribal water war are sketchy and scarce. The Associated Press’ Tim Talley explains news drought:

The lawsuit filed by the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations in August 2011 and a related water-rights lawsuit filed by the state six months later have been on hold for more than a year in the hope the state and the tribes can settle their differences through negotiation and avoid years of litigation. Though the two sides continue to talk, no one knows when – or if – a resolution will be reached.

U.S. District Judge Lee West has set no deadline for the tribal case brought by the Choctaws and Chickasaws, which sought an injunction barring the state and city of Oklahoma City from moving water from southeastern Oklahoma to OKC.

The state in February 2012 countered with its own lawsuit, which asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to determine the validity of two tribes’ water rights in the region. The case was later moved to federal court, the AP reports.

Michael Burrage, an attorney for the tribes, tells the AP “the process is working” and that Choctaws and Chickasaws are optimistic a deal can be reached with the state.

Burrage said at the time the lawsuit was intended to force the state to recognize the tribe’s sovereignty over water in territories covered by treaties with the federal government, and to determine how much water is actually in the region to make sure tribal needs are met. … Among other things, the tribal lawsuit sought an injunction to stop the board from selling its water storage rights to Sardis Lake in southeastern Oklahoma to the Oklahoma City Water Utility Trust. The trust wants a water-use permit to withdraw water from the reservoir, which is located within the historic territories of each of the tribes.

The two sides are due back in court on Sept. 17, but Judge West is likely to keep issuing stays if the state and tribes keep requesting them, the AP reports. A fifth stay was granted in May 2013, StateImpact reported.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state. He previously served as Managing Editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly, as the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Oklahoma Gazette and worked as a Staff Writer for The Oklahoman. Joe was a weekly arts and entertainment correspondent for KGOU from 2007-2010. He grew up in Bartlesville, Okla. and studied journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma.
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