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Oklahoma tribes win approval of water deal without so much as a hearing in Congress






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

Tribes have been having trouble getting water settlements through the Republican-controlled Congress but those hurdles posed no problems for the Chickasaw Nation and the Choctaw Nation.

In just four short months, the tribes convinced Congress to ratify their agreement with the state of Oklahoma. The unprecedented action came even though a bill was never actually introduced regarding a huge deal that was described as a "momentous achievement" by the parties.

Since there was no bill, there were no hearings in either the House or the Senate. And the Obama administration never officially gave its views even though the settlement imposes conditions on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior.

But the tribes had some key GOP allies in bypassing a process that typically takes years for others as they address concerns about cost, size and scope. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) inserted the deal into a national water bill that passed the Senate in September and, over in the House, it had the support of Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), who is Chickasaw.

"The delegation is absolutely united in supporting this, so is the state," Cole said at a legislative meeting back in September.

At the time, a different lawmaker hinted of a power struggle with the House committee that usually handles tribal water rights legislation. But Cole last week said those concerns were resolved and the settlement was inserted into yet another national water bill.

"This has been an on-going conflict that not only affects the parties involved, but everyone in these areas as well,” Cole said press release last Thursday. “This is important to many people. But we must realize that tribal sovereignty, the right to govern and the defining of those rights must be honored for the Chickasaws and the Choctaws. This settlement allows them to retain that distinction, protects the interests of the people living in those areas and provides security for Oklahoma City’s water needs.”

The settlement was tucked into S.612, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which cleared its final hurdle in Congress on Saturday. It takes up less than 18 pages of the 277-page package.

Like Cole, tribal and state officials credited Inhofe, who serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, for making the settlement a reality.

"We appreciate the quick action taken by Senator Inhofe to secure Senate approval of the historic water rights agreement between the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations, the state of Oklahoma and the city of Oklahoma City," Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby said in a press release.

"We have confidence the water agreement is a good compromise that protects our natural resources in Southeast Oklahoma while addressing the needs of people living in Oklahoma City," added Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton.

The Chickasaws and the Choctaws weren't the only beneficiaries of S.612, also known as the WIIN Act. The bill includes water settlements for the Blackfeet Nation in Montana [S.1125 | H.R.5633] and the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in California. [S.1983 | H.R.5984]

But those two tribes went through the normal legislative process. It took the Blackfeet Nation more than six years in fact to get Congress to advance the settlement.

And, even then, S.612 does not authorize any funds to implement the deal. Instead the tribe must come back to Congress before undertaking any water infrastructure projects that are deemed vital to improving the economy in northwest Montana.

"We have more work to do to secure the funding that goes along with this critical settlement, but I will continue to roll up my sleeves and build the support needed to do right by the Blackfeet Nation," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the outgoing vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a press release.

The Pechanga Band fared better. The WIIN Act authorizes more than $30 million for a deal that the tribe also spent years working on.

"Generations of tribal leaders have fought from the courts to Capitol Hill to protect this vital resource for future generations," Chairman Mark Macarro said in a statement.

Finally, S.612 includes the provisions of H.R.1296, the San Luis Rey Indian Water Rights Settlement Act. Five tribes have been asking Congress to update their settlement for nearly two years.

The bill is being sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

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