A group of property owners is suing over Oklahoma City’s agreement to siphon water from the Southeastern part of the state. They claim federal, tribal and state governments failed to consider two endangered freshwater mussels: the Ouachita rock pocketbook and the scaleshell.
Oklahoma City will divert water from Sardis Lake starting in 2035. The water will be pumped from the nearby Kiamichi River, home to these two mussel species.
“They’re naturally occurring. They’re not invasive species,” said David Page, the attorney representing the property owners. “And they’re filter feeders, so as they feed they clean the water.”
The plaintiffs own property bordering the Kiamichi. They argue there should have been an environmental assessment under the federal Endangered Species Act. A 2017 letter sent to Oklahoma City by U.S. Fish and Wildlife also warned against moving forward with the agreement to withdraw water from Sardis Lake without evaluating the impact on the endangered mussels.
“There are just a few populations left, and the analysis is that unless they're very closely protected the species won't last much longer,” Page said.
In fact, the lawsuit states the Kiamichi River supports the last remaining population of rock pocketbook mussels.
David Martinez, a biologist who works in Tulsa’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office, says the mussels have always been rare, but they have suffered in population size and range due to habitat loss and pollution.
“The river already experiences periods low flows in the summer, and during those low flows mussels can be killed because they are exposed or the water becomes too hot for them.” Martinez explained.
In addition to filtering water, Martinez says the mussels perform a variety of other ecological roles, such as stabilizing the river bed.