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Oklahoma Tribes Seek Water Rights

Tuskahoma in Choctaw means Red Warrior and it’s the name given to the tribe’s historical capital in Southeastern Oklahoma. During the height of summer, thousands of Choctaw citizens gathered in late August for their annual festival nestled by the shores of Lake Sardis.

But Lake Sardis, while sitting serenely and temptingly near the annual three-day event, is in the backdrop, it has also become ensnared in a debate over who owns the water. Two Oklahoma tribes, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Chickasaw Nation, moved that their interests should be decided in court.

The joint lawsuit, filed on August 18 in the U.S. Western District Court in Oklahoma, comes on the heels of communities wanting to buy the water from the lake and assert that they need it to satisfy their growing communities’ demand for it. Towns like Edmond, Oklahoma and Oklahoma City are talking about upping water access since drought conditions have gripped much of Texas and Oklahoma over the past year. Texans, just to the south, have also expressed interest in buying the Sardis water.

But who owns the 14,300-acres of water in Lake Sardis is a cloudy issue. Both tribes (prosperous gaming tribes at that) are convinced the water is under their claim since the lake sits between the original jurisdiction of the Choctaws and Chickasaws after their forced arrival from homelands in the Southeastern United States during the 1800s. Not only do they want their tribal water rights established, they want compensation for any monies made off the sale of Lake Sardis water, according to their joint lawsuit.

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The two tribes, once regarded as friendly rivals, have now joined forces to fend off would-be water suitors. The lawsuit names some 13 defendants and lists Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s executive director to the City of Oklahoma City.

Water, it seems, has been one steamy topic in Oklahoma. New suburban growth and burgeoning use have put many communities on months-long water rationing systems already. In fact, a water rationing system was in effect during the Choctaw festival, said tribal spokesman Judy Allen. Truckloads of free bottled water were handed out to cool off thirsty Choctaws.

Much has been made of water ownership as the temperature rises. But attention to water rights is expected to make a bigger splash in legal circles as water districts (local water oversight entities) push for more water. Tribes, on the other end, are pushing back.

Representatives for both the Choctaws and Chickasaws said that they have expressed interest in sitting down with Oklahoma officials and conducting negotiations between tribal and state governments. Those efforts have not proven fruitful yet, officials said.

State officials, including Fallin, said she is awaiting a report by the Oklahoma water resources board to guide her next move. Aaron Cooper, her press secretary, said the report was due to be released by Fall 2011.