Oklahoma

Economy, Energy, Natural Resources: Policy to People

Topics

Sardis Lake is at the heart of the dispute over who controls water across southeast Oklahoma

Why the Fight Over Sardis Lake Could Have Statewide Consequences

Background

Sardis Lake is at the heart of the dispute over who controls water across southeast Oklahoma

gmeador / Flickr

Sardis Lake is at the heart of the dispute over who controls water across southeast Oklahoma

The State of Oklahoma, the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations and the City of Oklahoma City are in federal court, fighting over the rights to water in Sardis Lake. But while this fight centers on a small lake in southeastern Oklahoma, the outcome of the case could change how government controls the rights to Oklahoma’s most water-rich region.

Historic Claim

The State of Oklahoma has been allocating water rights for more than 100 years — since statehood. But that could change if the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations are successful in a federal lawsuit that asserts their authority over water throughout southeast Oklahoma.

The tribes claim the water has belonged to them since before the Civil War.

The tribes base their claim on the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which established the Choctaw Nation. Proponents of the tribes’ position say, along with the land, the Choctaws got the rights to the water in minerals in their territory as well.

While the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations were never explicitly disbanded by law, the state says the tribes’ decision to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War — and later, statehood — had the same effect, and their rights to the water were lost in the process.

The Fight Today

The tribal lawsuit is on hold while the parties involved in the case negotiate outside of court. Oklahoma City is part of the suit as well. It was the city’s decision to move forward with a pipeline that would bring water from Sardis Lake, in southeast Oklahoma, to OKC that caused the Choctaws and Chickasaws to sue.

  • June 2010: Oklahoma Water Resources Board approves transfer of Sardis Lake storage rights to Oklahoma City.
  • August 2011: Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations sue to stop water from being taken out of historically tribal territory.
  • January 2012: Negotiations begins among the parties in the case after a federal judge puts the lawsuit on hold.

There’s no telling how long the talks will last, or who will end up controlling southeast Oklahoma’s water after the case is settled, which could take decades if states like Wyoming and New Mexico — where similar conflicts have arisen — are any indication.

Wyoming has been trying to work out tribal water rights in the Big Horn River Basin for 36 years. It took New Mexico more than four decades to determine Pueblo water rights there.

Latest Posts

OKC’s Tab for Tapping Sardis Water Could Be $1 Billion

Sardis Lake in southeastern Oklahoma.

Oklahoma City already depends on water from southeastern Oklahoma, but the 60-inch, 100-mile pipeline from Lake Atoka isn’t enough. An ongoing federal lawsuit with the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations has stalled OKC’s efforts to tap Sardis Lake Reservoir. But even if OKC gets the rights to Sardis Lake, it’s still going to have to pump the [...]

State and Tribes Still Wrestling Over Water Rights in Oklahoma

Sardis Lake.

While the State of Oklahoma won the Supreme Court Water War with Texas, its in-state skirmish is still simmering. This battle — between the state and the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations — is being waged within Oklahoma’s borders. But unlike the Red River water dispute, reports from the front lines of Oklahoma’s tribal water barely [...]

Grassroots Water Group Supports Oklahoma in Supreme Court Water Case

Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy was created to help prevent the sale of Sardis Lake water storage rights to Oklahoma City, so it comes as no surprise that the group is against the idea of Texas taking Oklahoma’s water. The ORWP on Monday filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting Oklahoma’s side in Tarrant [...]

Tribes Side with Oklahoma in Supreme Court Water Case

While their own fight for control of southeastern Oklahoma water is ongoing, the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations are supporting the state in its upcoming Supreme Court battle with Texas. The tribes on Thursday filed court briefs supporting Oklahoma’s side in Tarrant Regional Water District vs. Herrmann, an OK/TX water war that could impact dozens of [...]

State Water Plan’s Cost is Questioned, Science Criticized

Caption

A petroleum geologist from Tulsa questioned Oklahoma’s 50-year water plan at a legislative panel on Wednesday. The Oklahoman’s Michael McNutt reports: “We got sold a $16 million lemon,” Robert “Bob” Jackman told members of the Joint Legislative Water Study Committee. “This water plan has got as much guidance in it as a pop-bottle rocket.”

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »

Economy
Education