Implementing a responsible stewardship plan

This article appeared in the March 2024 edition of the Chickasaw Times

Since time immemorial, water has been essential to both life itself and the rise of complex civilizations. We are blessed with an abundance of water resources in the shared treaty territory of the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations in southeastern Oklahoma.

Nevertheless, responsible stewardship and sustainable management of these vital water resources is necessary to meet the needs of today while preserving those resources for our children and grandchildren.

A water management agreement among the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations, Oklahoma, and the City of Oklahoma City recently published in the Federal Register helps secure cooperation in balancing essential goals of sustainable water management.

While water drawn from reservoirs, rivers, or underground aquifers has obvious value for drinking, farming and industrial use, water that remains in those lakes, streams, and aquifers also has great value.

Water in the aquifers, rivers and lakes provides natural beauty, helps keep our environment healthy, and sustains the habitat needed for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities fundamental to the rural way of life, tourism, and economic development in our area.

While balancing residential, agricultural, industrial, environmental, and economic considerations is challenging in itself, management of our water resources has long been further complicated by the fact that many people outside our treaty territory would like access to that water.

The State of Texas has attempted to purchase water from within our treaty territory for decades. At the same time, the State of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City claimed rights to those water resources without consideration of our treaty rights and federal law.

After several years of unsuccessful attempts to resolve water rights issues through negotiations, the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations filed legal action August 18, 2011, in federal court to protect our water resources and resolve longstanding disputes with Oklahoma and Oklahoma City over the use of those resources.  

Historically, resolving legal issues regarding water rights and the management of water resources often requires decades of litigation and negotiation. Nevertheless, the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations were able to develop an agreement with the State of Oklahoma and the City of Oklahoma City in a significantly shorter time frame.    

That 2011 lawsuit initiated five years of complex negotiation leading all parties to agree on a settlement that was approved by Congress August 15, 2016.  

This settlement was a result of the parties shifting from a narrow focus on their own constituents to a broader focus on the shared needs of all Oklahomans.

As a result, we were able to develop an agreement that provides a framework for sustainable management of our water resources based on engagement, collaboration, and cooperation of all parties involved. 

March 28, United States Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland published a notice in the Federal Register certifying the legal enforceability of the Water Settlement.

While this marks a definitive step in the process of integrating the settlement into federal law, ensuring the agreement accomplishes its intended purposes depends in large part on the approach taken by the parties involved in implementation.

We believe the same focus on the shared needs of all Oklahomans that enabled the diverse parties to reach a settlement will prevail as we work together to fully implement it.

This agreement serves as a foundation on which to build as we work together in a spirit of unity and cooperation focused on sustainable management of our vital water resources.

 Working together, we can enhance the quality of life of all Oklahomans today and help ensure a strong economy and a thriving natural environment for generations to come.