Tribal Leaders, Residents Feel Shorted by Lake Sardis Water Deal

Thursday, November 4th 2010, 9:37 pm
By: News On 6

Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- An agreement that appeared to be the solution to a long-standing state debt and to Oklahoma City's future water needs is now threatening to blow up into a major lawsuit.

The agreement was forged in the fall of 2009, shortly after a federal judge ruled that Oklahoma was $27.8 million in debt to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Corps' construction of Lake Sardis in southeast Oklahoma in the late 1970s. The judge ruled that the debt had to be paid by July 1, 2010.

Discussions with the city of Oklahoma City resulted in a mutually agreeable deal, under which it would gain the storage rights to almost 90 percent of the water in Lake Sardis, in return for a payment of $27.8 million, the exact amount of the state's debt to the Army Corps.

When word of the pending deal spread to the people who live in the area, including the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, on whose land the Sardis basin lies, attempts were made to stop it. Tribal leaders, the Department of the Interior, and a citizens group each sent letters to Governor Brad Henry requesting that negotiations be put on hold. The requests were ignored and the state's agreement with Oklahoma City was approved by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board in June.

In Oklahoma City, where steadily increasing water use suggests they have about 25 years to get an additional water source on line, the Sardis agreement was seen as a win. And at the state capitol, where money to pay off the Sardis debt was tight and the deadline to pay even tighter, the deal was also seen as a win.

But around Sardis Lake itself, the deal is a betrayal.

Chester Dennis has decades of memories of Sardis Lake from the beach to boating. But he's concerned those memories might someday be all he and anyone else have.

"How can they come down here and take this from us? This is our lake," said Dennis.

The group Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy questions the legality of the agreement and worries Oklahoma City will draw down Sardis the same way it sometimes draws down Lake Atoka, a reservoir the city owns.

"And to do that to this area, to this beautiful piece of property would be a disservice to everybody that comes here," said Amy Ford, Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy.

The Oklahoma Impact Team took that concern to Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch. He downplayed worries about aesthetic changes at Sardis, and denied charges the deal was unlawful.

"The water is owned by the people of Oklahoma and appropriated by the state through the water resources board," said Couch.

Through public statements and a high dollar ad campaign, the Chickasaw Nation is making it clear they believe the state did not have the right to unilaterally sell the Sardis water to Oklahoma City.

Tribal officials say it was a slap in the face.

"How would you feel? Well, you would feel cheated," said Neal McCaleb with the Chickasaw Nation.

Chickasaw and Choctaw leaders say they don't fundamentally oppose the idea of Oklahoma City, or any Oklahoma community, having some access to Sardis, they just insist on being included in any negotiations.

"There's every expectation that there will be a long, tedious and expensive litigation…that will tie up the water for everybody," said McCaleb.

And that's something residents don't want.

"This is a part of our livelihood down here, it's not a turn the tap and get a drink of water," said Dennis.

There are talks going on right now between Governor Henry and the tribes in an effort to avoid a lawsuit. It's not clear how those talks are going, none of the parties would comment on them. But until there's some resolution, the deal with Oklahoma City, which still requires federal approval, is on hold.

Even though the deal has not received all the necessary approvals, the city already paid the state the $27.8 million and already increased city water rates, in part, to help cover that cost.