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Tribes file lawsuit to protect water rights

August 24, 2011

After several years of unsuccessful attempts to establish government-to-government negotiations with the state to resolve water issues, the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations filed legal action today in US District Court in Oklahoma City to protect the tribes' water resources.

"Citizens of the Chickasaw Nation, like all Oklahomans, have a vital interest in maintaining the conditions necessary to ensure a strong economy and a thriving natural environment for our children and grandchildren," said Bill Anoatubby, Governor of the Chickasaw Nation. "Because sustainable management of our water resources is imperative for the progress and prosperity of all Oklahomans, we have worked diligently to establish a working relationship with the state on this issue.. Unfortunately, our efforts have been unsuccessful, leaving us no realistic alternative to legal action."

Tribal efforts to establish negotiations regarding management of water resources can be traced back at least a decade. Three years ago the Chickasaw Nation sent a letter to then Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry and Oklahoma Water Resources Board Executive Director Duane Smith. That letter, dated June 10, 2008, expressed support for Oklahoma's effort to update the water plan but also communicated the critical concern that the effort had excluded government-to-government dialogue between the state and tribes. Without such dialogue, the Nation said, the State's water planning would be inadequate and flawed.

Offering no meaningful response, the State never took steps to engage substantively with the Nations on the subject.

Stephen Greetham, counsel for the Chickasaw Nation, said today's action was filed to protect tribal water rights against one-sided action by the state of Oklahoma.

"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," said Greetham. "This action seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to bar unilateral state action on water resource management issues. The Nations' treaties secured them a permanent homeland, and without the sustainable and long-term management of its water resources, that homeland will be undermined."

Recent formation of a state joint legislative water committee based on the presumption of the supremacy of state law on this issue is yet another indication of disregard for tribal rights and demonstrates a commitment by the state to take unilateral action.

"A lack of any real progress on the initiation of meaningful government-to-government talks on these matters, leads us to believe further inaction would simply mean the deepening of our present challenges," said Choctaw Chief Gregory E. Pyle. "Therefore, we have concluded that we must act now to protect the Nations' rights by taking our case to the federal courthouse.

“The Choctaw Nation is committed to protecting and preserving the sustainability of water in Southeast Oklahoma and the rest of the state. We will continue to seek a resolution that works for all of us, and I have faith that through the Court, we can reach a decision that is fair, meaningful, and serves the best interest of all Oklahomans."

Michael Burrage, lead counsel for the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations on this action said the suit is carefully structured to avoid disruption to the public.

"We haven't gone out looking for a fight on all this. We're using the courts to protect our water, period. The Nations have been working for a solution for a long time, now, but they can't do that alone. Given that the State couldn't figure out a way to the table, we had to make our way to the courthouse," said Burrage.

View the complaint as filed and other pertinent documents at:


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