- Associated Press - Thursday, August 11, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - An agreement that settles longstanding lawsuits involving water rights in the historic treaty territories of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations in south central and southeastern Oklahoma was announced Thursday by Gov. Mary Fallin, Oklahoma City officials and tribal leaders.

The agreement provides a framework for intergovernmental collaboration on water resource issues that protects existing water rights and ends water and tribal sovereignty disputes stemming back to the 19th century, officials said while unveiling details of the agreement.

“This is a big deal for our state,” Fallin said. “Having a sufficient and reliable supply of water is essential. It provides certainty for future development.”

“The agreement also allows the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations to have a voice in specific proceedings addressing water resources within their treaty territories,” the governor said.

Choctaw Chief Gary Batton said the agreement includes a system of lake level release restrictions to conserve water resources for recreational activities in the region, a priority of the tribal governments.

“This process we call mediation, it’s a wonderful process, it’s a difficult process,” Batton said. “At the end of the day, we all came together in the spirit of unity.”

“This is an historic agreement,” Chickasaw Chief Bill Anoatubby said. “While we’ve been sovereign since time immemorial, sovereignty is something we should never take for granted. As tribal leaders, we have a duty to engage in this process and exercise our right as sovereign nations to protect the interests of our people.”

The Chickasaw and Choctaw nations have long accused Oklahoma of not abiding by the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which gave the tribes authority over water in their jurisdiction. The state argued that the tribes were ignoring an 1866 pact in which they gave up certain rights after backing the Confederates in the Civil War.

The current fight started in 2011 after Oklahoma City sought rights to water from a southeastern Oklahoma reservoir, Sardis Lake. The tribes filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the Oklahoma Water Resources Board had no right to consider an offer to use water from traditional Native American homeland.

Oklahoma countersued, saying it wanted a court to resolve where the tribes’ rights begin and end in the Kiamichi, Muddy Boggy and Clear Boggy Watersheds in southeastern Oklahoma.

Under the settlement, Oklahoma would continue to manage the state’s natural water supply but acknowledge tribal sovereignty and meet the tribes’ conservation guidelines, officials said. The deal also guarantees Oklahoma City’s long-term access to Sardis Lake.

The agreement was signed Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Lee West. Congressional approval is also required.

The dispute over Sardis Lake, which was built by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, is one of several that have focused on southeastern Oklahoma’s abundant water resources. The region’s Atoka pipeline has transported water to Oklahoma City and surrounding areas in central Oklahoma for about 50 years.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Oklahoma’s favor in a lawsuit filed in 2007 by the Tarrant Regional Water District in North Texas that sought access to southeastern Oklahoma tributaries of the Red River that separates the two states.

The agreement does not authorize out-of-state use or diversion of water, which remains unlawful in the state. But it calls for a commission to evaluate the impacts of future proposals for out-of-state water use, which would remain subject to legislative authorization.

In the Sardis Lake case, the tribes initially sought, among other things, an injunction against the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and the Oklahoma Water Conservation Storage Commission.

The state responded with its own lawsuit in February 2012 asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to decide what rights the two tribes actually have to water in the region. The state’s lawsuit was transferred to federal court and formal mediation began in July 2012.

It took five years to settle the Sardis Lake dispute, but other water fights, especially in the drought-prone West, have dragged on far longer.

In 2010, officials in New Mexico settled a 1966 lawsuit involving more than 2,500 defendants in a case involving four Native American pueblos and non-Native American residents in northern Santa Fe County.

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