Native American Tribes, State, Oklahoma City Settle Centuries-Old Water Dispute

Aug 12, 2016

After five years of court proceedings and confidential negotiations, two Native American tribes have reached an agreement with the state over control of water in southeast Oklahoma.

Thursday’s move clears a path for Oklahoma City to take water out of the region. It ends a lawsuit brought by the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations that blocked Oklahoma City’s plan to meet its future needs by pumping water from Sardis Lake. The modern-day water rights dispute has  roots in the 19th century. The two tribes have claimed Oklahoma isn't abiding by the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which gives them authority over water in their jurisdiction. But the state says the tribes are ignoring an 1866 pact where they gave up certain rights after backing the Confederacy in the Civil War. 

The current fight started in 2011, and Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby says the tribal nations finally have a seat at the table when big water decisions are made.

“Under this agreement, the state will continue to exercise its authority to manage and protect water resources throughout Oklahoma,” Anoatubby said. “However, as we move into the future, our nations - the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations - will have a meaningful and active voice in the management of water resources.”

If approved by Congress, the agreement sets up rules for how much water can be taken from the lake without disrupting tourism. It also gives the tribes a say in how water in their territories is used or sold, and directs any proceeds from such water sales to help fix Oklahoma’s crumbling water infrastructure.

"It ensures that there is collaboration and discussion about that very momentous decision to perhaps sell water out of state or transfer the water out of basin,” said Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

The deal also limits how much water Oklahoma City can get from Sardis Lake, so the tourism that’s so vital to the southeast part of the state isn’t damaged because of lakes drained dry by the big city.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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