Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Obama Signs Bill That Officially Ends Southeast Oklahoma’s Tribal Water Fight

A sign along Oklahoma Highway 43 near Sardis Lake.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

A sign along Oklahoma Highway 43 near Sardis Lake.

President Barack Obama on Friday signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which passed the U.S. Senate in the wee hours Saturday morning. The $10 billion federal bill directs money to Oklahoma to help fix and address multiple water-related problems and issues across the state.

The bill’s signing brings a formal conclusion to the years long dispute between the state and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations over control of water in Sardis Lake and across southeast Oklahoma.

A settlement earlier this year limits how much water Oklahoma City can access from Sardis Lake to meet its future water needs, and gives the tribal nations a seat at the table when decisions are being made about moving or selling the area’s water. But it took the approval of Congress and the President to make the agreement official.

The tribal water rights settlement isn’t the only Oklahoma-related provision in the sweeping, $10 billion legislation that addresses water infrastructure needs across the country and allocates money to fix lead-tainted pipes in Flint, Mich.

Included is authorization for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan to rehabilitate Tulsa’s aging levee system. In a statement, Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith says the project will protect more than 10,000 residents and $2 billion worth of infrastructure.

The Water Improvements for the Nation Act also has provisions to prevent the deauthorization of the planned deepening of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, Oklahoma’s link to the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, it clears up easement disputes with the Corps on Grand Lake and with Oklahoma electric cooperatives. It also addresses reduction of chlorides in the Red River, and clarifies how power plants can dispose of coal ash, among other projects and programs in the state.

Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe was one of the main forces behind the legislation. In a statement, Inhofe says he is pleased the bill passed with strong bipartisan support.

“Another integral aspect of this bill is the assistance it provides to disadvantaged and rural communities in Oklahoma by helping these communities comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act,” Inhofe says. “I am proud of the bipartisan efforts that got this bill across the finish line and I look forward to seeing the benefits to Oklahoma in action.”

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  • Steve

    It’s about time that natives water rights were at least considered!

  • Ricky O Weber

    The C & C Nations et al Tribes are ALL saying it’s about time…

    • Ricky O Weber

      The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, etal are very very happy..

  • Multnomah

    All people need to be water protectors. Pres. Obama is doing the right thing for the right reasons.

  • Peggy Hart Miller

    I just read an article in the “Antlers American” entitled “Saving the Kiamichi River” by Debbie Leo stating the hearing and, as I understand, the final vote by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) on the Oklahoma City Stream Water Permit Application will take place October 10, 2017. If this permit is passed by the OWRB, Oklahoma City will be allowed to divert water from the Kiamichi River to Oklahoma City for the purpose of selling the water. If water is diverted from one place to another, called in other venues “redistribution” of resources, who wins and who loses? In other words, if what one group has is taken and given to another, what then happens to those original “owners”. What happens to the tributaries that feed into the Kiamichi River? As the Kiamichi River level drops does not it follow that the levels of the tributaries will drop as they flow into the larger river whose water is being redistributed. The point of the article cited above questions “who will be monitoring the water levels in the tributaries?” If the tributaries feeding the Kiamichi River dry up, what will happen to the wild life? What will happen to the farms, ranches, and folks that depend on the water supplied by the tributaries? What will happen to the underground waterways and wells that trees and families depend upon for water sources? Are the folks in Oklahoma City and those that would “buy” water redistributed from SE Oklahoma more important than the folks/livestock/wildlife in SE Oklahoma that depend on the water in the Kiamichi River and its tributaries for their very lives? Who has researched these issues? All these questions were raised in the article. The answers to these questions were ominous–Leo states: “Without water, our (those living in SE Oklahoma) lifestyles and our future will be changed forever. There is no turning back when water is moved out of the basin. Recovery is not an option, nor is recharging the basin waters a possibility. The nature of a watershed is finite and irreversible.” Attendance at the hearing/vote is critical if you live in SE Oklahoma to show solidarity and strength against diverting water from the Kiamichi River to Oklahoma City. The lives and future of the citizens in SE Oklahoma depend on your being there. The address for the OWRB is: 3800 N. Classen Blvd (Second Floor), Oklahoma City, Oklahoma at 2:30 PM October 10, 2017. Please be there.

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