Who are the parties involved in the Agreement?
The parties to the Agreement are the State of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, the Choctaw Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, City of Oklahoma City, and the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust. The United States must also be a party to its terms, which can only occur after Congress enacts legislation approving those terms.
What geographical area does the Agreement cover?
The Agreement resolves the water rights claims of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations throughout their historic treaty territory, which is that area east of the 98th Meridian to the Arkansas border and south of the South Canadian and Arkansas Rivers to the Texas border. This area, referred to as the Settlement Area, roughly includes 22 counties in south-central and southeastern Oklahoma and is depicted in Exhibit 1 to the Agreement.
Why is the Agreement necessary?
For many decades there have been differing opinions related to tribal water rights and who has authority to manage and allocate water resources within the historic Choctaw and Chickasaw treaty territory. Long-running conflicts, particularly about the Kiamichi Basin and Sardis Lake in the Settlement Area, prompted court action. The Agreement resolves those questions in a manner that respects the common interests of the parties and their separate sovereignties, rights, roles, and obligations.
Will the Agreement end all litigation regarding the Nations' claims to water and over Sardis Lake?
Yes. In addition to comprehensively resolving the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations’ water rights claims, the Agreement also resolves both lawsuits pending in Federal court—one, the lawsuit that the Nations filed against the State, and two, the stream adjudication that the State filed in the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Additionally, the Agreement will, when approved by Congress, fully and finally resolve the State’s debt obligations to the United States with regard to Sardis Lake, the subject of litigation between the United States and the State.
What would happen without the Agreement?
If the parties failed to reach an agreement, litigation in multiple forums could continue for decades, at great cost to the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, the State of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, and potentially the thousands of citizens claiming water rights in the Settlement Area. Keeping the best interests of all Oklahomans in mind, the parties concluded that if they didn’t work together to find solutions, more would be lost than gained for all parties and water users. No Agreement means the courts would be granted the power to make decisions that may not be in anyone’s best interest, uncertainty would hang over existing water rights and vital water decisions would be stymied for decades. Such an outcome would be bad for all parties, bad for existing water users, bad for water resource management, and bad for economic growth and a healthy environment.
In general terms, what does the Agreement accomplish?
The Agreement resolves significant legal questions relating to water ownership, water rights, and jurisdiction while ensuring protections for the consumptive and non-consumptive water needs of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations and the communities of Southeast Oklahoma. Equally important, the future water needs of the greater Oklahoma City metropolitan area are supported, as are the future water needs of all Oklahomans. This was a very difficult balance to achieve, but each of the parties has worked diligently and cooperatively to ensure that the balance is reasonable and workable.
How does this Agreement benefit the Nations?
The Agreement accomplishes the Nations' goals laid out early on:
- Resolves longstanding legal uncertainty regarding tribal rights and interests in the waters of the Settlement Area;
- The Nations will have a role and voice with regard to significant future water rights proposals within the Settlement Area;
- The OWRB's decision-making process will be reinforced to enhance protections for the consumptive and non-consumptive water needs of southeastern Oklahoma (the Settlement Area);
- A robust and comprehensive lake level protection system based upon the recommendations of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation will be in place for purposes of use of Sardis Lake storage by Oklahoma City; and
- The Oklahoma City metropolitan area, in which thousands of Choctaw and Chickasaw citizens live and work, will obtain access to waters necessary for reasonable future needs.
Overall, the Agreement will ensure that water will be sustainably available for the communities of the Settlement Area, the Nations, and their members and citizens long into the future. And importantly, while these benefits fulfill the Nations' goals in this process, they are benefits also shared by the State and Oklahoma City.
How does the Agreement benefit the State?
The Agreement accomplishes the State's goals laid out early on:
- The OWRB's responsibility for water allocation and water rights administration is affirmed, providing certainty to all parties and water users, both existing and future;The outstanding Sardis Lake debts to the United States are resolved;
- Sardis Lake can now be used for water supply purposes while protecting recreational, fish, and wildlife needs;
- Resolves longstanding legal uncertainty regarding tribal rights and interests in the waters of the Settlement Area;
- The long-term water needs of south central and southeastern Oklahoma are protected, while at the same time maintaining that water can be shared among all regions.
- Oklahoma City gains access to water for its critical future needs, ensuring the continued success of a vital economic urban center in Oklahoma.
Importantly, while these benefits fulfill the State's goals in this process, they are benefits also shared by the Nations and Oklahoma City.
How does the Agreement benefit Oklahoma City?
The Agreement accomplishes the City's goals laid out early on:
- Access to water necessary for its consumers' reasonable future needs; and
- Resolution of complex legal and resource management issues that now firm up the security of its water supplies.
Importantly, while these benefits fulfill the City's goals in this process, they are benefits also shared by the State and the Nations.
Will the Agreement affect existing water rights or rights to surface or groundwater?
No. A fundamental principle on which all parties agreed early on was that existing water rights must be upheld and assured by the Agreement, and that all Oklahomans continue to have the right to access future groundwater and surface water supplies.
How does this Agreement ensure there is adequate water for southeastern Oklahoma, both now and into the future?
The Agreement reinforces State laws that protect the current and future water needs within a stream system (basin of origin), including protection of existing and proposed beneficial uses and the needs of local water users. Additionally, consistent with current State law, 20,000 acre-feet of water from Sardis Lake is reserved on an annual basis for use within the 10-county area surrounding the lake.
How does this Agreement protect Sardis Lake levels?
A negotiated system of lake level release restrictions, which the parties based on the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's proposed lake level management plan, will apply to the Oklahoma City's use of Sardis Lake waters. That system is designed to protect Sardis Lake's trophy bass fishery and other recreation resources while allowing Oklahoma City access to water that it needs, subject to additional water conservation requirements and integrated management of the City's existing reservoirs.
How does this Agreement protect flows in the Kiamichi River?
While the Agreement provides Oklahoma City with future access to the Kiamichi River, it may only divert water when flows are high enough to protect environmental and recreational needs, including endangered species. More specifically, the Agreement imposes—in addition to the lake level release restrictions already noted—a bypass flow requirement at Oklahoma City's proposed point of diversion that was developed to ensure a healthy base flow level consistent with existing research.
How does this Agreement promote water conservation by Oklahoma City?
The Agreement integrates Oklahoma City's water conservation measures that were adopted in 2013. The Agreement also requires conservation measures and extensive use of its other water supply reservoirs before Oklahoma City can draw upon Sardis Lake during times of drought.
Does the Agreement include protections for evaluating proposed transfers of water from southeastern Oklahoma?
Yes. In addition to the Agreement's emphasis on existing state law that prioritizes source basin water needs, the Agreement includes additional conditions designed to reinforce protection of the water needs of Southeast Oklahoma. Both now and in the future, needs for drinking and industrial water, rural and municipal water, protection of wildlife habitats, and recreational use will be protected. Building on state law, the Agreement requires the development and use of hydrologic tools necessary to evaluate any significant risk of adverse effects on basins in Southeast Oklahoma where water is proposed for transfer out of those basins.
Does the Agreement authorize any out-of-state use or diversion of water?
No. The Agreement expressly maintains the current requirement of state law that no water can be used or diverted out of state without the approval of the Oklahoma Legislature.
How does the Agreement address out-of-state use or diversion of water should the Oklahoma Legislature ever approve such action?
Should the Legislature ever approve use or diversion out-of-state, the Agreement establishes a Settlement Commission for purposes of reviewing proposals and their potential economic and environmental impacts. The Settlement Commission’s report on any proposal would be forwarded to the Legislature for its consideration on whether and how to proceed on a proposal. Additionally, if the Legislature does ultimately approve a proposal to use or divert water out-of-state, any proceeds from such transaction would be devoted solely to funding public water infrastructure in Oklahoma, particularly in south central and southeastern Oklahoma.
Are there any taxes or assessments associated with this Settlement?
What happens now that the Agreement has been signed by the State, Nations, and Oklahoma City? Why does it involve Congress?
As indicated in Item #1, the parties will seek federal legislation in order to secure congressional approval of the Agreement and related waivers and authorizations. Federal legislation will be necessary to approve the Agreement, to authorize the United States to execute and become a party to the Agreement, to authorize the United States to waive any claims it may have, to approve an amended contract transferring the Sardis Reservoir storage rights and obligations from the State to the City, to authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to approve the amended storage transfer contract, and to waive any remaining repayment obligations to the United States associated with "future use" storage, which will now be dedicated to maintenance of lake levels.
Does the Agreement impact the water rights claims of other American Indian tribes in Oklahoma, or otherwise establish some precedent in that regard?
The Agreement solely resolves the unique issues and disputes as among the parties in the Settlement Area. It does not establish precedent with regard to the claims of any other tribe in Oklahoma or elsewhere.
Does the Agreement deal with groundwater, including the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer?
The Agreement does not affect any landowners' right to access groundwater under state law. The Agreement continues to protect the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer consistent with existing State law.
What happens if a party doesn't live up to the terms of the Agreement (including but not limited to provisions protecting lake levels in Sardis Lake and stream flows in the Kiamichi River)? How will the Agreement be enforced?
The Parties agreed that any party to it can enforce its terms in the federal court for the Western District of Oklahoma.