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Oklahoma lawmakers push for approval of tribal water rights deal






Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby, at podium, discusses a tribal water rights settlement in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on August 11, 2016. Photo from The Chickasaw Nation

A water rights settlement for the Chickasaw Nation and the Choctaw Nation is close to becoming law even though the massive deal has never been put to a hearing.

The tribes and the state of Oklahoma announced the agreement last month, with Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby calling it a "win for all Oklahomans." The settlement ensures the tribes play a role in managing water in their treaty territory while providing for the ongoing and future needs of Oklahoma City, the largest municipality in the state.

But water rights settlements need Congressional approval to become law. Usually, that involves the introduction of bills in both the House and the Senate, and at least one, if not more, hearings. The process typically plays out over the course of multiple sessions of Congress amid concerns about cost, size and scope.

That hasn't happened with the Chickasaw-Choctaw deal thanks to the state's powerful Congressional delegation. Barely a month after it was unveiled, it passed the Senate as part of S.2848, the Water Resources Development Act.

The lawmaker who was in charge of S.2848 is Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. He added the settlement to the national water bill without it seeing so much as a single hearing in his chamber.

Attention then turned to the House. Earlier this week, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, sought to have the settlement included in H.R.5303, his chamber's version of the national water bill.

Again, Mullin was prepared to move forward even though the deal never saw a hearing in the House. But he agreed to withdraw his amendment, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, said.

"The delegation is absolutely united in supporting this, so is the state," Cole said at a meeting of the House Rules Committee on Monday evening, a meeting that was crucial in setting up H.R.5305 for passage on Wednesday. "I think it's really an important addition to the bill."

According to Cole, lawmakers are still waiting on the Obama administration to officially sign off on the settlement. The federal government was not a party to the lawsuit that the tribes filed back in August 2011 but has to agree to certain provisions affecting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior.

But Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Florida), the sponsor of H.R.5303, also said a "jurisdictional situation" arose, hinting of a power struggle with a different House committee that usually handles tribal water rights legislation but hasn't done so in this situation. However, since the settlement already passed the Senate, he indicated it remains on the agenda.

"We'll work through this in conference," Shuster told Cole. A joint conference committee of the House and Senate is expected to be convened to iron out the differences between H.R.5305 and S.2848.

Inhofe has called the Water Resources Development Act a "must-pass" bill and the Chickasaw-Choctaw settlement isn't the only tribal deal that's been included in S.2848. The Blackfeet Nation of Montana would also see approval of its water rights deal if it survives the conference committee.

But unlike the Chickasaw Nation and the Choctaw Nation, the Blackfeet Nation has had to come to Capitol Hill repeatedly to push for ratification of its settlement. The first version of the settlement was introduced in 2010 but it has never came close to becoming law until being added to S.2848.

The 114th Congress will conclude at the end of the year.

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