Oklahoma City and Choctaw Nation both want water rights to local lake

The future of Oklahoma City may be on the line. All because of a little body of water about 175 miles away.

At stake is the right of Oklahoma City to gain access to water from Sardis Lake, located in the southeast part of the state in Pushmataha and Latimer counties.

“We’ve worked on this for 15 years and felt like we were just about there,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said. “Just when you think it couldn’t get more complicated, it does.”

It’s not that the city is running out of water, at least not yet. But 20 years down the road, if the city continues its rapid pace of expansion and growth, water could become as scarce as landline telephones. Because of this fear, city leaders have been trying to cut a deal for more than a decade.

“I think (former Mayor) Ron Norick and I made our first trip down there in 1995,” said City Manager Jim Couch. “We are looking to procure a long-term water solution for Central Oklahoma. It’s nothing we need for the next few years. I think ultimately there will be appropriate water for Central Oklahoma. I just can’t believe there won’t be at some point down the line.”

Oklahoma City already sucks up water from two southeastern water holes, Lake Atoka and McGee Creek. In fact, the city owns Lake Atoka and can take as much water as it wants from that source. With McGee Creek, the city has what Couch calls “a bucket.” The city doesn’t own the rights to McGee’s water supply, but it does have the right to access the creek and store water for use.

It’s the same situation the city wants to have with Sardis Lake.

“We file an application, just like a rancher would or any other city, and the water is given to the people who need the water,” Couch said.

While negotiations for a bucket of water have been ongoing for several years, the past few months have brought the city and the state closer to signing the dotted line. For the state, failure to sign a deal in the next few weeks could prove to be costly.

Sardis Lake was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1974 on the premise the state would pay for construction costs and take ownership of the lake. But unable to sell the water, the state stopped payments in 1997, leading the feds to file a lawsuit in 1998. A settlement was finally reached last year, with the state agreeing to pay and set up a schedule of payments. The first payment of $5 million is due July 1, which is why state officials are desperate to reach an agreement.

And Oklahoma City is offering a deal: assuming responsibility for the payments owed to the federal government, a total of $27 million. Add to that, the city has agreed to pay the state an extra $15 million to reimburse what the state has invested in the lake.

Everything was set to go, then the Choctaw Nation expressed interest in the negotiations, said state Sen. Jerry Ellis, D-Valliant.

“The Choctaws are willing to pay it off,” said Ellis, who is advocating for the tribe. “They are probably the only ones in Southeastern Oklahoma that have the money there to pay it off.”

Ellis is a vocal critic of any deal to give Sardis access to Oklahoma City. It’s not just that the Choctaws could offer a better deal, but Southeastern Oklahoma folks like Ellis don’t want the big city coming in and taking their water.

“We were promised on the Atoka and McGee Creek deal 40 to 50 years ago that we would get economic growth and jobs,” Ellis said. “And instead, we got picnic tables. So why should we trust them again?”

Ellis said the Choctaws are willing to keep the water in Southeastern Oklahoma and develop the area around the lake with resorts and other industries.

Couch said he is unaware of any obligations the city made concerning Lake Atoka and McGee Creek economic development.

“I have never seen any documents that made these allegations,” Couch said. “We contract several hundred thousand dollars a year to the city of Atoka to provide security, road paving, revegetation and a number of things. We have a really good relationship with (Atoka). I’m sorry these legislators are unhappy with the relationship between Oklahoma City and the city of Atoka, because the people of Atoka are not unhappy with it.”

State Treasurer Scott Meacham said the state has been negotiating with the Chickasaw Nation over ownership of Sardis Lake water. The treasurer said the Choctaws were invited to the negotiating table but failed to show up.

Ellis said the Choctaws believe they have a heritage right to the lake, which sits within Choctaw territory, and that if the state does not work a deal out, the tribe will take it to court.

Choctaw Nation spokeswoman Judy Allen said any negotiations would be premature before a statewide study being conducted on water is complete. The study is expected to be unveiled next year. As for allowing Oklahoma City access to the water should the Choctaws secure the Sardis water rights, Allen said they would be sympathetic to the city’s needs but wants to see the study before making any decisions.

It’s the senator’s preference the Choctaws get the deal and not Oklahoma City. He is also concerned that if another entity gets the rights, Sardis water may be sold to Texas, which Ellis opposes just as much as selling to Oklahoma City.

But Meacham said a study was conducted in 2001 that showed Sardis has plenty of water for Southeastern Oklahoma, Oklahoma City and a surplus to sell to Texas. He also said if a deal is not worked out with a tribe very soon, the state will go forward and sign with Oklahoma City, which at this point wants the issue resolved whether a tribe takes over or not.

“From our standpoint, we just want to know who to write the check to,” Cornett said. “If the state decides the tribes or Southeast Oklahoma deserve special consideration, that’s fine. We just want to have access to the water for Central Oklahoma to go forward.” “Scott Cooper

photo/Mark Hancock

Scott Cooper

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