Historic Deal Settles Oklahoma's Long Battle With Tribes Over Water Rights

by | August 17, 2016 AT 11:50 AM

By William Crum

Calling the moment historic and defining, Oklahoma City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of an agreement that will nearly double the city's water supply.

The council approved a settlement announced last week in a five-year legal battle over management of southeastern Oklahoma water resources.

Once implemented, the agreement will grant Oklahoma City access, in an average year, to 110,000 acre feet of water from Sardis Lake reservoir, said Jim Couch, the city manager.

Biggest gift

Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid said access to the water would prove, for many years to come, to be a huge advantage for Oklahoma City and its prospects for economic growth.

"This will be the biggest gift we give to future generations, as water becomes increasingly scarce and important in this century," Shadid said.

Completed in the 1980s, Sardis Lake impounds water from tributaries of the Kiamichi River.

It is about 150 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, near the town of Clayton and close to two other reservoirs that supply Oklahoma City with drinking water -- Lake Atoka and McGee Creek.

The Chickasaw and Choctaw nations sued the state of Oklahoma, the city and the Oklahoma Water Utilities Trust over water rights and claims on traditional tribal lands.

After years of mediation overseen by U.S. District Judge Lee West, the tribes, state and city reached a settlement that maintains state authority to administer water, creates a tribal role in managing water resources and reserves a share of Sardis Lake water for the city, Couch said.

Couch said protecting stream flows in the Kiamichi Basin was of great importance to the tribes.

"We agreed to a lake level management plan that is really strong," he said.

Couch said the agreement "maximized the amount of water that will be in Sardis at all times" while still allowing Oklahoma City to withdraw water for metropolitan-area needs.

"The lake level management plan and the minimum stream flows were very important to the tribes as we go forward," he said.

Project costs

Couch said building a pipeline to move water from Sardis to Lake Atoka would cost about $150 million.

A $600 million project already is in the design phase for a second pipeline, parallel to the existing 100-mile, 50-year-old pipeline, to ship the additional water from Lake Atoka to Lake Stanley Draper.

The city manager said officials hope to win necessary

federal approval for the settlement when Congress convenes in the interim between the November election and when the new president takes office in January.

(c)2016 The Oklahoman