Kris Steele: Caddo aboriginal rights “something to be considered” in development of water policy

Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele believes all interested parties should be involved in development of state water policy. He agreed that the “aboriginal rights”of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma are “certainly something to be considered” in planning and development. Steele stressed the state should not ignore tribal concerns from “any of the 39 federally recognized sovereign nations in Oklahoma.” 

Steele made the comment today (Wednesday, September 21) during a session with reporters just before the scheduled meeting of the Joint Legislative Water Committee. Gov. Mary Fallin has shared reflections along the same lines, in response to Caddo Tribal Chairman Brenda Shemayme Edwards’ concern, expressed after a lawsuit asserting treaty rights to Oklahoma water was filed in August on behalf of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes. 

In his reflections on water policy, Steele reiterate the purpose of the committee, which is, first, to study the Comprehensive Water Plan resulting from five years of work at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, and then, second, to develop the state’s official water plan for the next generation. He said the plan developed by OWRB “is not the be-all and end-all,” and noted it has already received criticism. 

Steele is “not interested in political games,” and said that critics of the plan were included on the panel he named in cooperation with Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman of Sapulpa. Steele disclosed he called Choctaw Chief Ed Pyle and Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anaoatubby before the start of this summer’s water hearings to brief them. In the end, Steele said, “My hope is to negotiate a “win-win” for every one involved. I know that in the past the tribes have not always been happy. So, I reached out.” The Shawnee Republican stressed, “it is the governor’s responsibility to conduct negotiations.” 

The hearings have taken place among some tension, and assertions that tribal interests were not being referenced or reflected in deliberations. Steele noted the first session in June had included a presentation of historic tribal rights, but agreed that was not an exhaustive reflection of all viewpoints. 

Steele insisted he is optimistic an approach to water policy can result that will not inevitably lead to litigation. Sen. Jerry Ellis of Valliant has suggested the state is headed toward lengthy litigation with the tribes. Asked about regional interests in state water, including from north Texas, Steele said the Legislature’s focus was on Oklahoma: “It is paramount that we meet the needs of our constituents.”

Steele said the committee will meet until at least December, and perhaps into January. Members will attend the governor’s water conference next month, when the OWRB report is formally submitted. Steele says robust debate “is healthy and it is important that is occuring.” Steele’s office also supplied reporters with a copy of the OWRB’s response (dated September 20) to criticisms from Sen. Ellis and Rep. Brian Renegar of McAlester.