State should find equitable solutions to water disputes

To The Editor: 

Water in southeastern Oklahoma, particularly in Sardis Lake, has ignited a firestorm of controversy which could impact the policies regarding our most precious natural resource for generations to come. 
The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations filed a lawsuit in federal court to enjoin the Oklahoma Water Resources Board from issuing a permit to the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust to pump water out of Sardis Lake and transport it to Oklahoma City.  The tribes also claim water rights in Lake Atoka, Kiamichi Basin, Clear Boggy Basin, and other areas.
Pete White, Oklahoma City council member and Chair of the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust, recently authored an editorial that appeared in The Oklahoman.  The editorial referred to “over 20 treaties” between the tribes and the U.S. Government, one of which “revokes previous treaty rights after the tribes sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.”  The only treaty invoked by the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes in this particular dispute is the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.  That treaty, signed in 1830, conveyed the tribal lands whose water is in dispute today.  There has been no treaty revoking the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. 
Pete White makes no mention of treaty names.  He provides no specifics, but strongly implies that the Indian tribes are traitorous and therefore deserve to have their rights trampled yet again.  He implies, but does not openly state, that the tribes do not have a meritorious suit because the treaty upon which they base that suit has been revoked.  Accepting his premise as true, one must reach a conclusion that is patently false. According to the U.S. Constitution, the ‘supreme law of the land’, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek is still good law.  If it had been revoked, the tribes’ case would have already been thrown out of federal court. 
The Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes allege in their lawsuit that the permit granted by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust would give the Trust the right to withdraw up to 90% of the annual estimated sustainable yield of Sardis Lake.  Sustainable yield is the level of water that can be extracted from the system without compromising the ecosystem and the productivity of the resource.  Thus, the Oklahoma City usage permit would place Sardis Lake dangerously close to environmental damage.  In the case of drought and/or increased demand for use, Oklahoma City’s demands could endanger recreational uses upon which many local businesses depend.  Oklahoma City is self-interested, and would hold southeastern Oklahoma’s resources subservient to its own water demand. 
Although Oklahoma City clearly has a stake in the game that has nothing to do with the needs of all Oklahomans, Governor Fallin in her State of the State address implied strongly that the tribes may not share the goal of negotiating in good faith.  This implication is insulting, considering the history of government-to-government relations between the tribes and the United States. While things are better, in the past the federal government has treated the tribes unfairly; Gov. Fallin now wants the State of Oklahoma to do the same.
Surface water, such as the water in dispute in Sardis Lake, are considered publicly-owned and subject to use permits issued by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB).
Before the OWRB issues a permit to appropriate surface water, 4 conditions must be met.  1) the applied for amount of unappropriated water must be available, 2) a present or future need for the water must exist and the intended use must be beneficial, 3) the use of water must not interfere with domestic or existing appropriative uses, and 4) the use must not interfere with existing or proposed beneficial uses within the stream system and the needs of the area’s water users if the application is for the transportation of water for use outside the area where the water originates.
The Oklahoma City permit application potentially violated both the third and fourth requirements. We do not know what the environmental impact will be on the Kiamichi River or Sardis Lake.  Allowing the water levels in Sardis to fluctuate could devastate the fishing industry.  Until we have the answers to these questions, we cannot know whether Oklahoma City should legally be granted its permit. 
Recreational uses for fishing and tourism are beneficial uses, and the economy of southeastern Oklahoma depends largely on those uses. We need to find a solution to this dispute that advances the interests of all Oklahomans, and not just central Oklahomans.  We can do this by doing a proper assessment of the use proposed by Oklahoma City.  If that use would harm southeastern Oklahoma’s existing beneficial uses, the permit should be overturned in court.  We cannot allow central Oklahoma to dictate to southeastern Oklahoma the shape of its economy, but that is a very real possibility if Oklahoma City is awarded its permit to the water of Sardis Lake.

         Brian Renegar 


Note: Renegar is an Assistant Minority Floor Leader and Senior Adviser on agricultural issues in the Democratic Caucus, and represents House District 17, which encompasses parts of Haskell, Latimer, Le Flore and Pittsburg counties. He resides with his family in McAlester.
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