TULSA, Okla. - In what is being called a monumental agreement by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations have signed an agreement to unite Indian water rights with existing state water laws.
The compact will be submitted to the Oklahoma Legislature in the near future.
At issue were the water rights of nearly 25 counties in Oklahoma and the area along the Kiamichi River Basin. Federal studies have shown that that nearly half a trillion gallons of water pass over a nearby spillway each year.
"This monumental agreement provides the groundwork through which the tribes and state can work together to achieve much needed economic development in southeast Oklahoma," Keating said.
With drought conditions prevalent in many parts of the Southern Plains this past year, communities in Oklahoma are trying to find adequate water sources, this new agreement may help supplement dwindling water resources for those communities.
But the need for additional water resources doesn't end in Oklahoma; as the population in Texas grows, so does its need for more water.
When the state proposed selling water to Texas in 1991, tribes were up in arms; claiming the state didn't have the right to sell the water. Pointing to water right treaties, signed before the Civil War, the tribes threatened a lawsuit against the state if their water rights were violated.
The water sale to Texas was rejected, but the incident made both the state and the tribes realize they had to come to an agreement on water rights.
Both the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations believed a compact with the state would be the most advantageous process for all of those concerned.
The new agreement will help the state of Oklahoma pay the $40 million it owes the federal government for construction of Sardis Lake in Latimer and Pushmataha counties in Oklahoma. The federal government filed a lawsuit against the state for late payments.
The compact will affect water supplies in the Oklahoma City area since lakes covered under the compact supply nearly half the city's water supply.
The compact, signed by Choctaw Chief Greg Pyle, Chickasaw Governor Bill Anoatubby and Keating, is expected to help define the water rights of the tribes and the state. It also provides a system to administer water rights, address water quality standards and will allow the three entities to address development plans for the water in southeast Oklahoma.
"While the tribes hold firm to our water rights claims, we recognize that the existence of two conflicting systems could impede economic development opportunities of potential benefit to all people," Pyle said.
Anoatubby agreed that the compact opens the door for more economic development in southeastern Oklahoma. He said it is another example of cooperation between the nation and state of Oklahoma.
"Once again we have agreed to work together to resolve tough issues in a way that will provide the greatest benefit for all citizens concerned. This is a vitally important and necessary agreement. What is good for the tribes is good for the people in Oklahoma in general."