Patrick B. McGuigan
In Oklahoma, water is always important. Thereby lies many stories, including this one.
Back in 2010, then-state Senator Jim Wilson, a Democrat from Tahlequah, held a press conference to denounce Republican speculation about possible sales of Southeast Oklahoma water to communities south of the Red River. In the course of that denunciation, which extended both to the legislative GOP and to Oklahoma City in general, Wilson opined that the region’s two most significant tribal nations – the Choctaw and the Chicksaw – would never take steps to shift water from his part of the Sooner State to the Lone Star State.
I dutifully reported on Wilson’s comments, made in the Capitol press room along with Jerry Ellis of Valliant (an always more restrained and precise legislator than Wilson, although both men made for what we used to call “good copy” in the news business).
Within a few hours of posting the story, something interesting happened. I got a call from a statewide elected official asking me to pay a visit to the agency over which that person presided.
I did so and was told about past manuevering among tribal leaders to lay the basis for water sales … to Texas.
There, behind closed doors, a copy of a relatively obscure report lay in plain sight before me.
Encountering no objection, I picked it up and took it with me.
It turns out that nine years before, in 2001, an engineering report done for the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes had concluded that Oklahoma’s water supply was sufficient to engage proposed water transfer contracts, including inter-state water sales.
Flash forward in time again, to the early months (in 2011) of the Fallin administration. At a time when she was facing pressures (including an eventual lawsuit) by the high-powered lawyers for the Chickasaw and Choctaw – who were claiming that southeast Oklahoma water belonged to them (at least some high proportion of it) — I submitted a question to Governor Mary Fallin.
I asked, in sum, The Caddo, you see, were (and of course still are) the aboriginal occupants of the land where the Choctaw and Chickasaw came during the forced removal from their ancestral lands in the eastern United States.
The small tribe was compelled to move to the west. Today, their headquarters offices are in Binger in western Oklahoma, a long ways from the well-forested lands, and plentiful rivers and creeks where they used to reside – and a long way from the county that still bears their name.
Fallin assured me, through her spokesman, “The governor has said that, moving forward, it is important for the state of Oklahoma and the tribes to have a productive conversation about water rights outside of the courtroom. Certainly the Caddo Nation will play an important role in that conversation. The governor is committed to working with them and other parties to pursue solutions that benefit all Oklahomans. She will continue to work in good faith to find common ground and resolution.”
By August of that same year (2011), it appeared the state might face many years of litigation over water rights. Stephen Greetham, counsel for the Chickasaw Nation then and now, asserted that the tribe had sued because, “The Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations hold treaties with the United States that secure prior and paramount rights to the ownership and management of water resources throughout their territory.”
But in 2013, the state won an historic legal victory. That win was itself the prelude for negotiations of historic legal importance (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/water-rights-victory-historic-setting-stage-for-state-tribal-case). However, it appears the Caddo and their aboriginal rights were never incorporated into those discussions.
Eventually, a water deal was announced among the two large tribes and the state of Oklahoma, with Oklahoma City along for the ride. When that was unveiled in 2016, no mention was made of the Caddo. Although state and tribal leaders addressed assembled reporters at announcement of the deal, all the top brass left the venue (the Gaylord-Pickens Museum) before journalists could ask any questions.
I nonetheless inquired, for the sake of history if nothing else,
A lawyer (perhaps Greetham) working for the interests of the large tribes, explained to me and other reporters the Caddo had not been a party to the settlement.
No one had attended to their interests in the negotiations. I asked the question knowing and fearing the answer was already apparent.
Today, the Choctaw and Chickasaw enjoy, under federal and state provisions, control over 25 percent of the water in that region.
And also today, Jim Wilson is long gone from the state Senate. There are fresh rumblings of possible deals to sell water to Texas. More and more present or former state officials are on the payroll of one or another of the major tribes. There is nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but we all need to pay attention.
In good years (meaning when rain is plentiful), water sales might make sense. Texas could use the resource to keep lakes full), and that would be fine with most people hereabouts.
In bad years, however, it would be disastrous for Oklahoma if any agreements allowed “priority” provisions to require that this invaluable source of nature leave Oklahoma.
At the Sovereignty Symposium in Oklahoma City this month, I asked a panel of excellent scholars why no one had spoken up for the Caddo back in the day. If not the responsibility of state officials and powerful interests, then who ought to watch out for this small group of … fellow Oklahomans, one and all? No one on the panel was in a position to address the matter, but at least I was able to raise it, as a question.
As the session ended, the lawyer for the Chickasaw, Mr. Greetham, said that speaking up for and watching out for the Caddo was the job of “the BIA” (the Bureau of Indian Affairs).
Of course, the BIA was not a party to the water deal. Then again, neither were the Caddo Indians. Funny how that worked out.
As we all go forward, remember this word: . … If Oklahoma and Oklahomans are not the priority, Texas wins.
After this year, many new faces will be in power at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.
Some familiar faces will be in new jobs.
Maybe one or more of them will answer, or at least ask, the question:
Silly me, it still seems to me that the folks who lived in and about the Kiamichi Basin originally have more than a passing right to some of whatever economic gain might ultimately come from the region’s most treasured natural resource.
And all Oklahomans have more right to the use of that water than any Texan I can envision.
To repeat: Water sales when there’s enough water? Perhaps, but not on a priority basis that displaces any Okies.
If there are ever water sales to anyone, maybe someone, somewhere, will make sure that Oklahoma is the priority.
If that happens, it probably won’t be anybody from the BIA.