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July 8, 2013

Tribes work to solve water rights issues

OKLAHOMA CITY — After years of legal wrangling, the state of Oklahoma successfully blocked a legal challenge by a Texas water district that claimed it had a right under a 30-year-old compact to cross the Red River and take water from Oklahoma to serve the fast-growing Fort Worth area.

But the state’s victory did not end the court fight over water rights in Oklahoma. The state and a pair of Oklahoma-based tribes are still squabbling in federal court over whether the tribes have a legal right to water in their historic territories in southeastern Oklahoma.

The lawsuit filed by the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations in August 2011 and a related water-rights lawsuit filed by the state six months later have been on hold for more than a year in the hope the state and the tribes can settle their differences through negotiation and avoid years of litigation. While the two sides continue to talk, no one knows when — or if — a resolution will be reached.

“The process is working,” said Michael Burrage, attorney for the tribes. He said negotiators have met several times since the lawsuits were stayed and another meeting is scheduled July 18-19 in Oklahoma City.

A mediator appointed to the case in December 2011, Duke University law professor Francis E. McGovern, has since left the negotiations. Burrage said McGovern “helped us reach a certain point” and was no longer needed.

“At this stage in the process, we think we can work well with each other,” Burrage said. He said he was prohibited from discussing details of the closed negotiations.

The presiding judge in the water rights cases. U.S. District Judge Lee West, has set no deadline for the cases to be resolved and will likely continue to issue stays if all sides request them, Burrage said. The current stay order expires on Sept. 17.

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