Water Fight: Old-fashioned fight threatens Oklahoma City’s future

Almost everyone knows about Oklahoma City‘s Thunder, a young National Basketball Association franchise that nearly won it all in last year’s strike-shortened season. Less widely known is that Oklahoma’s capital city has not only weathered the Great Recession, but is now leading the nation in many economic indices. 

Now, there’s a specter haunting the city, the threat of a fight over water rights that could stall — even reverse — the city’s historic growth.

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations sued this year to block Oklahoma City’s use of water from southeast Oklahoma.The legal fight has a PR component. Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby and Choctaw Chief Greg Pyle have spent millions to persuade Oklahomans they merely seek to protect water purity and assert sovereign rights.

If so, that would mark a reversal on the tribes’ stated goal of selling water to the highest bidder. In 2001, the tribes’ own “review of issues” concluded the water supply was sufficient to act on proposed water-transfer contracts, including inter-state sales then under discussion with the Lone Star State’s Tarrant County and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. That — and not their recent, more selfless talk — would explain why the tribes have also spent a lot of money on politics, not only in Oklahoma, but in neighboring Texas.

Citing their lawsuit, an attorney for both tribes this week declined comment on the tribal leaders apparent about-face.

In April, meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Lee R. West approved creation of a water task force described as “geographically, politically and demographically diverse” to negotiate a settlement of the claim. That otherwise diverse group does not include smaller tribes who sense they’re being pushed out by the larger Chickasaw and Choctaw.

What’s going on in those meeting? Unclear: Under mediator Francis E. McGovern, its meetings are, by West’s directive, confidential, off-the-record and not subject to public scrutiny. It is not clear how often they have met, if at all.

To be sure, the two tribes have legal interests in the southeast water basins, but their percentage is not — will not be — controlling. It will almost certainly fall below the majority interest their leadership needs to act on the out-of-state water sales.

Other potential claimants include the Caddo, displaced to western Oklahoma by the arrival of the big tribes in 1830s. Their interests, even under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, are ignored by both tribal and state leaders. Any settlement should also incorporate and not devalue western tribes like the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache.

Resolving those claims alone could take another decade of litigation to settle. In the meantime, Oklahoma City’s bright-looking future is almost sure to dim.

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.