What impact will the current drought have on this dispute with the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes?
The current dispute over water rights predates the current drought conditions. The drought has again brought to light the need for responsible water management. The issue of water rights must be resolved no matter what the moisture conditions are in the state. The questions of rights go directly to who legally controls the water and who is best suited to manage water for the benefit of all Oklahomans. Oklahoma City’s Water Utilities Trust is working to assure that there is water available in times of drought and in times when water is abundant.
Why are the State of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City in this dispute with the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes?
The tribes are making claims to water rights that are held by Oklahoma City and many other water permit holders in Southeast Oklahoma. The City acknowledges that the tribes to have certain rights, but not the massive claim that they made in their lawsuit. From the start of this dispute, Oklahoma City has taken a stand to protect its rights. There are economic consequences to everyone involved in this case. The state, the tribes and the City are looking to reach an agreement that is fair and equitable through the current negotiations. The City is working to protect the water future of Oklahoma City and much of Central Oklahoma.
Is there a shortage of water in the area where the water rights are in dispute?
This is a challenging time for water in Oklahoma. Even in this time of drought, Southeastern Oklahoma remains a critical source of water for the state. The water in dispute is in three Southeast Oklahoma basins: Kiamichi, Clear Boggy and Muddy Boggy Basins. The State’s Water Plan indicates more than 5-million acre-feet of water run through these basins each year while just over a quarter-million acre-feet are permitted. The Oklahoma Water Utilities Trust and its partners in the McGee Creek Authority permit most of that. In simple terms, Oklahoma City is permitted for less than 5% of the water flow in the basins. Most of the water in these basins that isn’t captured flows to the Red River downstream. Once it is in the Red River, it is no longer usable for drinking water because the Red River is too salty.
What progress is being made in talks between the tribes, the state and Oklahoma City?
In January of 2012, the state, the City and the tribes began the mediation process. That process concluded in January of 2013. With the foundation of a full year of mediation, all sides are now involved in direct negotiations. Everyone involved has agreed not to discuss the specifics of these ongoing talks while the process is proceeding.
If the talks fail, what is the next step?
First, the City is hopeful that these negotiations will lead to a structure for a settlement. If talks don’t create an agreement, then there is an established court process that will ultimately create a fair and equitable solution for everyone involved. Water rights are complicated. There exists in the law a process that determines how water is allocated. It is called the McCarran Amendment. This process was created by Congress in 1952 and is the accepted means to settle complicated water disputes like this one. It gives everybody . . . the tribes . . . the state. . . Oklahoma City and all water permit holders in Southeast Oklahoma a voice. The State of Oklahoma has asked to take this dispute through the court process. The City of Oklahoma City supports this process.
What do the treaties and agreements with the tribes say about water rights?
There is disagreement over what past treaties say. There are as many as 20 or more treaties and agreements between the United States government and the State of Oklahoma with these tribes. In the City’s opinion, these treaties do not bestow any broad right to all of the water that flows through this area of Oklahoma. There is no question that Native Americans have certain rights to water. Oklahoma City is not disputing that.
What is the role of the Atoka Pipeline in this dispute?
In November of 2011, the tribes amended their lawsuit to include the Atoka Pipeline in their claim. The Atoka pipeline has been supplying water to Oklahoma City and many other communities for 50 years. At the time it was built, Oklahoma City’s Water Utilities Trust legally obtained and paid for all of the right-of-way required for such a significant project. Landowners were appropriately compensated for permission to create this essential link to the state’s largest water system.
Do the tribes have territorial or homeland rights to water in Oklahoma?
This is another fact that is in dispute. For certain purposes, the tribes are recognized as sovereign entities under federal law. But in the early 1900’s the federal government gave tribal members in Oklahoma land rights that are no different than the land rights of all other Oklahomans. Members of the tribes and the tribes themselves were given land on which to live, farm, ranch or maintain schools and other tribal buildings. The result is the tribes own 3 to 5 percent of the land in Southeast Oklahoma water basins. For legal purposes in this dispute, the tribes don’t have rights to a territory like they might if Oklahoma had reservations. Most of the state’s dams and reservoirs are water infrastructure paid for and maintained by all taxpayers and water ratepayers. These water assets have never been owned or operated by the tribes.
How long will all of this take?
When can we expect an outcome? That is difficult to say. Negotiations are underway. If this goes back to court, litigation of this sort can take years. Oklahoma City is committed to investing the time necessary to obtain a fair and equitable resolution. The future of Oklahoma’s water and economic health is at stake.
What are the City’s intentions with Sardis Reservoir?
This dispute is more than just about Sardis Reservoir. All water rights in Southeast Oklahoma are impacted by the claims made by the tribes. The agreement that legally placed water storage in Sardis Reservoir into the hands of the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust is a win-win all around. It does secure storage for the Water Utility that will help meet the needs of Oklahoma City, Central Oklahoma and parts of Southeast Oklahoma down the road. The Sardis Reservoir agreement also relieved the state of an expensive obligation for the debt on the construction of the reservoir. The Water Utility is also looking to take advantage of all of its storage capacity at Sardis, Atoka and McGee Creek reservoirs to provide a reasonable balance of water resources.
Most important- Sardis Reservoir will eventually be used for the purpose for which it was created. More than 40 years ago with the support of the Water Utility, the Federal Government starting planning Sardis Reservoir for flood control and water storage. At some point, the City is hopeful that the reservoir will fulfill its mission to provide clean plentiful water to the people and businesses of Oklahoma.
What is the status of the permit for Sardis Reservoir?
The litigation brought by the tribes has disrupted the permitting process. No one can predict the timing on the permit given the lawsuit.
When does the City intend to start using Sardis water?
First, the City can’t do anything until a permit is issued. The Trustees of the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust are looking at Sardis Reservoir as a long-term solution for the state’s water needs. Oklahoma is growing. Much of that growth is coming from Oklahoma City and Central Oklahoma. It is prudent planning to look down the road and know that the state’s economic future depends on the availability of water for business and residential use, as well as recreational uses. The decision to permit Sardis will allow the Water Utility to balance current and future water needs with the other resources in the City’s water system.
What is the environmental impact of the City’s plan to use Sardis Reservoir for water storage?
The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust places a high value on protecting the environment while responsibly delivering clean water to customers. The City is committed to meeting all environmental laws and regulations. Oklahoma City recognizes that taking massive amounts of water and drawing down the reservoir is not good environmental management. Once permitted, the City will replenish water it takes from the reservoir before taking more.
Additionally, the City utilizes the highest standards of water procurement and treatment. The Water Utility also has the strongest commitment to sound conservation practices. That is true now in this time of drought and in times when water is more plentiful. Any implication that Oklahoma City will somehow damage the environment in Southeast Oklahoma is a fabrication designed to obscure the real issue here: Oklahoma’s water is here for the benefit of all Oklahomans.
For people concerned with recreation, what will happen to water levels for Sardis Reservoir when the permit process for water storage concludes? The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust is dedicated to sound water management to the benefit of residents and businesses throughout the city, Central Oklahoma and Southeast Oklahoma. The City recognizes the recreational value of the system’s reservoirs. It is also important to recognize that Sardis Reservoir was originally built for flood control and water storage. Sardis Reservoir holds 274,000 acre-feet of water. Just over 156,000 acre-feet are dedicated to municipal water supply. People naturally think that means water rights holders would remove more than half of the reservoir’s water. That isn’t going to happen. In fact, what happens is the lake almost continuously adds rainwater and water from the Kiamichi River to its storage. The City will replenish water before taking more. The reservoir levels will vary depending on supply, demand and the time of year. Even in times of drought like we are experiencing now, lake levels will provide benefits for Sardis Reservoir’s many recreational enthusiasts.
When it comes to water rights, is this dispute over surface water or ground water?
This is about surface water- water that flows through stream systems and rivers into lakes and reservoirs. It was clear many years ago aquifer water below ground could not meet the growing community’s needs for water. Water resources in Central Oklahoma, both aquifer water (known as groundwater) and river or lake water (called surface water) are limited. Years ago Oklahoma City committed to using surface water to make groundwater available for smaller communities in Central Oklahoma that might be able to meet their water needs entirely on groundwater. In this dispute the tribes are claiming much of the rainwater, melting snow and stream flow in Southeast Oklahoma.
What is the difference between storage rights and water rights?
In Oklahoma water rights are the just that, the right to take water from a stream or an underground aquifer. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board may permit this right. The right may also come from a property owner next to a stream or on top of an aquifer. Storage rights are special. Those rights are created with the construction of a dam that collects water flowing through the area and holds or ‘stores’ it. When Oklahoma City purchases water storage rights, the City pays the cost of building the part of the reservoir dedicated to water supply. Picture it as an invisible five-gallon bucket in the middle of the bathtub. Reservoirs are built to hold water for several purposes: flood control, water supply, recreation, and wildlife management. The reservoir helps keep heavy storms from flooding properties downstream (a primary purpose in Oklahoma). It stores drinking water for times when the river is dry, and it gives us a place to boat and fish while providing a home to many wildlife species.
It is important to remember that Southeast Oklahoma has large water resources. Oklahoma City only has permits for a very small percentage of water in the basins. In fact, Oklahoma City is permitted for less than 5% or the total water flow in the Kiamichi, Clear Boggy and Muddy Boggy basins. There are other smaller permit holders, but the vast majority of water in this part of the state is not permitted. That means much of the water in the three basins makes its way to the Red River and then out of state.
Will the City sell water to interests in Texas?
The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust has gone on record as saying it will not sell water across the state’s borders. Oklahoma’s waters are there for the benefit of Oklahomans. The Water Utility is committed to serving the people of Oklahoma City, Central Oklahoma and Southeast Oklahoma.
Does Oklahoma City make water available to other communities?
The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust has agreements with 20 Oklahoma cities and counties, as well as Tinker Air Force Base, and five businesses that depend on water for power generation, manufacturing and irrigation. These communities and businesses benefit from Oklahoma City’s investment in water procurement and infrastructure. Unlike municipal water utilities in other states, the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust will supply other Oklahoma communities or water districts at cost.
Can't Oklahoma City satisfy its water needs through conservation? The Water Trust is a well-managed utility that does emphasize conservation. In January of 2013, the Water Utility instituted an odd/even watering schedule based on home addresses. This step is one of many the City has taken to conserve water in this time of scarcity. Oklahoma City is also has the state’s largest water re-use program in which wastewater is treated so that it meets standards for other beneficial uses. Through education efforts, the Water Utilities Trust has helped reduce consumption. The Water Utility consistently communicates good conservation practices to customers and has initiated building code requirements that are proven water savers. At the same time, the future water needs of our state won’t be met with conservation alone. That is why the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust is committed to making the investments necessary to assure that people have access to plentiful clean water well into the future.
Are there alternative water supplies that the City’s water utility can consider before tapping into Sardis Reservoir?
What about aquifer storage, desalination and indirect water use? It is important to remember that Sardis Reservoir was built 30 years ago for flood control and water storage. By following through on its permit request, the Water Utility will fulfill the original purpose of the reservoir. The City has explored many other ideas. Some are impractical and some may play a role in the future, but right now, the use of Sardis Reservoir for future water storage is the best choice.
How will the people in Southeast Oklahoma be impacted by this dispute?
There are many stakeholders in the future of Oklahoma’s water. Coalgate, Antlers and Atoka also depend on the water in the Kiamichi, Clear Boggy and Muddy Boggy Basins. There are other water permit-holders and landowners who also use water in this system. Their established rights to water in Southeast Oklahoma are also being challenged by the actions of the tribes. With good resource management, there is water that will benefit both rural Oklahoma and Oklahoma City. No matter how you look at it, the right thing to do is to let this issue be resolved through the process that is under way so that everyone benefits.