Coffee, Benge comment on this week’s water controversy

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 22-Apr-2010

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee and Speaker of the House Chris Benge both said Thursday they believe water is an important Oklahoma asset that could a potential money-maker for Oklahoma. However, each of the Republican leaders stressed in separate interviews that this week’s controversy, sparked by two southeast Oklahoma lawmakers, was misdirected.

In his weekly session with Capitol reporters, held this morning, Senator Coffee went beyond the issue of funding a payment due to the federal government from the state of Oklahoma.

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, he said, “It’s very unfortunate that some SE Oklahoma legislators have been so aggressive on this, while not recognizing that it was their predecessors who have refused to pay the bill the state owes for work that has been done to build and maintain a container for some of that water. That refusal is costing us money now. The federal government is owed a debt. That cost must be paid, and we have to start soon.”

Still, Coffee stressed, concerning a recent contretemps focused on Sardis Lake and Oklahoma City, “The cost there is for the container of the water, not the actual use of the water.” Without naming Sen. Jim Wilson of Tahlequah, Sen. Coffee was critical of the actions he and other southeast Oklahoma legislators have taken to impede discussion of water infrastructure improvements and related issues.

He continued, “Further water study is useful if it’s not merely a political document. It’s possible that politics could taint any further study. We have to think of the needs of the whole state, including that western Oklahoma or central Oklahoma have water needs that can best be met by transporting water out of basins that are in eastern Oklahoma.”

Asked if he supported possible sale of Sardis water to Oklahoma City, Coffee said, “I do support that. But all that is being discussed at this point is that federal payment that is due and that was neglected by previous legislators. We also must remember that the Chickasaws and the Choctaws are sovereign entities who have an undoubted interest in the water issue. It is appropriate that they have that interest and that they are involved in whatever is discussed as this goes forward.”

In a mid-day session with reporters, House Speaker Benge commented that water is “a politically charged issue that warrants serious discussion, in fact, very serious discussion.”

Benge concluded, “We certainly ought to be asking if it makes sense to sell some of that resource, to bring in money for the people of Oklahoma.”

In other water-related news, CapitolBeatOK today reported on a 2001 study done for the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes that concluded Oklahoma’s water supply was sufficient to engage proposed water transfer contracts, including inter-state water sales, which were then under discussion.