The Evolving Politics of Oklahoma Water Policy

  • Joe Wertz
Illinois River

OakleyOriginals / Flickr

Canoeing on the Illinois River in eastern Oklahoma.

Oklahoma’s water needs are increasing, and its water policies are evolving.

Many of the changes are physical: fixing aging infrastructure, adding capacity to keep up with growth, and addressing drought.

But Oklahoma’s evolving water policy is also very political. And while the Texas dispute has been settled, legally, there are other fights on the horizon. The Journal Record’s Scott Carter gives readers an update on the policy players in this story, which explains why the ongoing state and tribal water dispute is so complicated.

The state and the tribes share Oklahoma’s geography and its natural resources, but their governments are sovereign. And since Congress has express oversight in tribal affairs, continued disagreement could mean the federal government taking a more active role in what happens within Oklahoma’s borders.

And federal intrusion is one thing most state lawmakers uniformly loathe.

Carter writes:

After decades of ignoring a bill for the construction of the Sardis Lake Reservoir in Clayton, the Oklahoma Legislature was forced to come up with more than $27 million to pay the tab after a federal court ruled against the state. Not long after the court’s ruling, then-state Treasurer Scott Meacham, a Democrat, began quietly negotiating a deal between the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust and Oklahoma Water Resources Board to purchase the water storage rights to Sardis and use the proceeds to pay off the Sardis bill.

Enter the tribes. Despite pleas from Choctaw and Chickasaw tribal leaders, the state finalized the deal and Oklahoma City cut a check. The Sardis bill was paid, but just weeks later, in August of 2011, both tribes filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to stop the agreement. That lawsuit, currently being negotiated, continues though Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby said he believes the case will be resolved soon.

Those negotiations are ongoing, but Oklahoma lawmakers have “ramped up” fighting over federal and tribal policies they feel encourages on the state’s sovereignty, which University of Oklahoma Political Science Professor Keith Gaddie says is “more about politics than policy,” the paper reports:

“A lot of this push for states’ rights is simply a way to turn out the base voter, a way to rally the troops.”