Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can find past Capitol Updates archived on his website.
When the federal lawsuit was filed by the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations in 2011 to stop an agreement between the State of Oklahoma and the City of Oklahoma City to allow OKC to receive water from Sardis Lake in Southeast Oklahoma, predictions were that it would tie up water policy in Oklahoma for many years. At stake was the tribes’ claimed ownership interest in public waters, including Sardis, located in their treaty areas. Many of these types of complex cases have taken decades to resolve, either by trial and appeal or by agreement.
But recently an announcement was made by the tribes, the state and OKC that a settlement had been reached. News coverage has not included the complex details, but generally the agreement retains the state’s primary authority to make agreements regarding the water, but it gives a role to the tribes in the management of the waters, largely dealing with conservation measures such as lake levels. The tribes will not be entitled to payment for water sold by the state.
Kudos have been given all around to the parties for their effort and ability to overcome their disagreements and find common ground. One has to assume that the case, after 5 years, had been litigated to the point where the parties understood their legal strengths and weaknesses and their likelihood of success at trial, and each side negotiated the best deal it could get. The settlement still has to be approved by the U.S. Department of Interior and legislation by Congress. Apparently no action is required by the Oklahoma legislature, although presumably it could take action to stop the agreement before it becomes final.
It will be interesting to see if the agreement receives any pushback which could come from tribal members or other citizens in Southeastern Oklahoma. Water in Oklahoma has always been a volatile political issue, usually between Eastern Oklahoma where there is plenty of water and parts of the state that need more. There’s also been contention between Eastern Oklahoma citizens and the state over negotiations from time to time to sell water to parts of Texas. Time will tell if this agreement is a “done deal” or if there will be some speed bumps along the way.