Gene Lehmann Managing Editor
The Ada News
Oklahoma City —
Tribal leaders with the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations — along with state of Oklahoma officials — will begin a 60-day hiatus from feuding over southeastern Oklahoma water disagreements, a federal judge ruled late Tuesday.
Following a flurry of lawsuits, motions, filings, and a “W” in the win column for the tribes when the U.S. Department of Justice nixed a state-backed general stream adjudication motion in the Oklahoma Supreme Court, it is hoped the 60 days will be used for all to return to the negotiating table tanned, rested and ready.
The Daily Oklahoman reported negotiations between the state and tribes disappeared for approximately a month as each side attempted to advance water rights arguments in federal and state courts.
The issue is quite elementary: Do the tribes enjoy a negotiating and controlling voice over water transfers and storage out of traditional tribal territories to quench the thirst of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area — or is the issue entirely decided by state of Oklahoma officials, the state water resources board and the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust?
The answer to the question is complicated because it involves treaties with the Chickasaw and Choctaws that date to 1830. Those treaties were signed with the U.S. government, not Oklahoma.
Last month, when Oklahoma asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to decide who controlled the water in the Muddy Creek, Kiamichi River and Clear Boggy streams — all located within the 22-county tribal territory — a big federal roadblock halted that effort.
The Justice Department ruled the case can only be decided in federal court and relieved the Oklahoma Supreme Court of its duties to rule on the issue.
Pleas by trial officials for a “seat at the table” to determine water rights and basic water control safeguards out of its territory were basically ignored. A plea from Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin for the tribes to drop federal lawsuits was politely declined by Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby and Choctaw Chief Gregory Pyle.
As the legal jockeying between the factions continued, the friction between the parties heated to a point negotations broke down entirely, The Oklahoman said.
The federal court stay will prevent any court action for 60 days. It was welcomed by Anoatubby and Pyle.
“We are hopeful the stay of court proceedings agreed to by all partieis will mark a positive shift in our efforts to mediate the issues. We have believed for some time state and tribal leaders are fully capable of settling this matter around a negotiating table,” they said in a joint statement.