Water in Oklahoma Part Two: Native American Water Rights and the Fight over Water in Southern Oklahoma

In last week’s post, I wrote about the unsuccessful increased claims that Texas tried to make on Oklahoma’s portion of the Red River. In a region that faces continued drought conditions, many parties want to stake a claim to the area’s limited water resources. Southern Oklahoma’s water resources have parties from both directions on the compass that want a share. We already know that Oklahoma’s neighbor to the South, Texas, wants more of the Red River entitlement. However, to the North of these water resources, Oklahoma City and the surrounding suburbs are in need of further water entitlement to sate its citizens’ appetite for water. In this blog post, I will discuss how protracted negotiations and court proceedings have pitted Oklahoma City against the Indian Nations with land and water claims in the Southern part of the state. While the negotiations are still ongoing, the case shows how important limited water resources are to everyone in the region. But first a bit of background.

On paper, the State of Oklahoma has a “surplus” of water resources. In reality, this perception is far from the truth.  The Oklahoma Water Resources Board estimates that the state sits on over 300 million acre feet of groundwater. However, like in many states, the places that have significant water resources are not near population or agricultural centers that are the end users. To compound the challenge, water demand continues to climb in the state. A good portion of the ranching and agricultural activity in the state occurs in some of the driest parts of the state. Urban users also face supply challenges. According to a February 27th article in Oklahoma State Impact, Oklahoma City has much fewer surface water resources than its sister city Tulsa, even though the cities have similar numbers of customers. As such, Oklahoma City is much more reliant on connecting to outside water resources for its long-term supply.

To achieve this goal, Oklahoma City connects to the water resources that it lacks but the southern part of the state has. Currently, the City of Oklahoma gets a significant portion of its imported water supply from Lake Atoka in Southeastern Oklahoma. The City owns and maintains a 60-inch, 100 mile long pipeline to serve its approximately 500,000 customers. However, as both the city expands and agriculture expands in the areas around the City, the water resources it receives from Lake Atoka will not be enough to satisfy long-term needs. As such, it is looking to a second resource, Sardis Lake to fulfill its supply needs. At a projected cost of $1 billion to build the pipeline, the infrastructure will not come cheap. But the people of Oklahoma City will not shell out a single dollar if they cannot secure the rights to Sardis Lake. The rights are at the center of contentious negotiations between Oklahoma City and a few Indian Tribes that also lay claim to the resources.

At the heart of the dispute over Sardis Lake is who actually has rights to the resource. To get a handle on how complicated this legal issue is, we have to start almost 200 years ago to the original claimants. In 1830, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek established the Choctaw Nation. In exchange for moving the Native Americans in the region to Indian Territory (which would one day become Oklahoma), the Treaty granted them many unique attributes. In a September 19th article in Oklahoma State Impact, Oklahoma University Law Professor Taiawagi Helton said, “The United States, in order to induce the tribes to remove to Indian Territory, made them promises the likes of which you don’t see in any other set of treaties – The promise of near complete sovereignty, the promise that the land would never be part of any state. I think there’s a great argument that water was conveyed to them along with all of the other natural resources.” However, as Oklahoma became a state, the Dawes Act divided up the Indian Territory into individual plots that tribal members could claim. Through the process, tribal governments did not explicitly continue to establish their sovereign powers.

Fast forwarding around 100 years, the region is facing continued drought conditions with no abatement in sight. The State of Oklahoma and the Indian Nations that both lay claim to the water resources in the southern part of the state are operating in a legal grey area, and the litigation and negotiations continue. The Chickasaw, Creek and Choctaw Nations argue that despite the federal government’s attempts to do so, the federal government never fully dissolved the tribal governments. Although there were times that each nation did not exercise its governmental powers fully, the nations were never dissolved.

On the other hand, there is the political and pragmatic reality that Oklahoma faces. The water resources in the state are generally not where the population centers and water users are. Further, as the drought continues to grip this region, limited water resources become more precious, and unfortunately more contentious. As with many of these water rights disputes, the courts will have to settle the issue and it will likely take some time before we have a full resolution to the matter. In the meantime, expect more rancor as the many parties that lay claim to the state’s water resources fight for their piece of the pie.

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About Jeff Simonetti

Jeff Simonetti is the Vice President of Public Affairs at the Capitol Core Group and provides project management, business development, and policy/lobbying expertise to a variety of federal, state and local clients. During his tenure at Capitol Core, Jeff has among other projects helped a renewable energy company to secure authorizing resolutions in cities across Southern California. Prior to joining Capitol Core Group, Jeff was a Vice President at the Kosmont Companies, a real estate and economic development consulting firm. At Kosmont, Jeff was the project lead for cities looking to implement financing strategies such as Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs) and other post-redevelopment funding mechanisms. He also was the project manager for the Economic Development element of the Fontana General Plan Update. Jeff gained significant state and local government affairs experience as the Government Affairs Director at the Building Industry Association (BIA) of Southern California’s Baldy View Chapter. During his tenure at the BIA, he helped to found the annual San Bernardino County Water Conference, an event that gathers over 400 elected officials and business leaders in the region to discuss the pressing water policy issues that affect the community.

2 thoughts on “Water in Oklahoma Part Two: Native American Water Rights and the Fight over Water in Southern Oklahoma

  1. Jason Bass

    Hi Jeff. What is the Federal role, if any, at this juncture in trying to resolve the water rights claims of the Oklahoma tribes?

    1. Jeff Simonetti Post author

      Hi Jason. The main case related to the Indian Water rights dispute between the tribes and Oklahoma City is Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations v. Gov. Fallin, OWRB, and Oklahoma City. The parties filed the case in 2011, and so far they have stayed the case six times. Most recently on September 17th, the parties asked the court to stay the case for another 120 days. There is very little publicly known about the negotiations since there is a gag order in place. However, I can only presume from the number of court stays that both parties do not want to move towards a court battle. The process could be drawn out, and it might expose details that neither party wants to be public. Keep an eye on the case, but for now it looks like the negotiations will continue behind closed doors. If only walls could talk!

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