Lawsuit filed in fight over Oklahoma City’s Sardis Lake, Kiamichi River water permit

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The Kiamichi River just north of Moyers, near the location where Oklahoma City plans to pump water released into the river from Sardis Lake to the central part of the state. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

A group of landowners and businesses along the Kiamichi River in southeastern Oklahoma have filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Water Resources Board in an attempt to block a permit allowing Oklahoma City to withdraw water from Sardis Lake and the Kiamichi River.

The lawsuit, which names seven individuals who own land or businesses along the Kiamichi River as plaintiffs, filed Nov. 8 in Pushmataha County District Court. It asks the court to vacate the OWRB’s decision in October to approve a permit that allows Oklahoma City to withdraw up to 115,000 acre feet of water — or around 37.5 billion gallons — each year from Sardis Lake and the Kiamichi River, or require the board to rehear the matter.

The issue of Oklahoma City’s attempts to tap water held in Sardis Lake, near Clayton, has been a matter of controversy in southeastern Oklahoma for years. The reservoir was constructed in the mid-1970s for municipal and industrial water use under an agreement between the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

However, the state repeatedly failed to repay the Corps for construction of the reservoir.

In 2007, Oklahoma City applied to the OWRB to use water from the Sardis reservoir, and in 2010, OWRB approved a $42 million agreement with Oklahoma City, that gave the city access to 90 percent of the water in the lake in exchange for the city paying off the state’s debt.

The deal was protested by residents, businesses and American Indian tribes in the Sardis Lake area, who said the city would drain the lake and devastate tourism in the area. In 2011, the Choctaw Nation and Chickasaw Nation filed a lawsuit against the city, the city’s water utility trust, the OWRB and Gov. Mary Fallin.

That suit was settled in 2016, and movement on the city’s petition began again in earnest in early 2017.

The new lawsuit filed in Pushmataha County argues that the expense of past litigation brought against the city and state by the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations put pressure on the board and unduly influenced its decision to approve the permit.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board approved Oklahoma City’s permit, which had been protested by a couple dozen individuals from southeastern Oklahoma, on Oct. 10.

The city’s plan submitted to OWRB states that water will be released from the dam at Sardis Lake into Jackfork Creek, which flows into the Kiamichi River. About 39 miles downstream, near Moyers Crossing, the city will build a pumping station on the Kiamichi River to collect the water and pipe it to Oklahoma City.

According to documents submitted to the OWRB, Oklahoma City will not begin pumping water from the Kiamichi River until 2035, when it expects to pump around 8,000 acre-feet per year. That amount would increase each year, until it reaches 115,000 acre-feet of water per year in 2065.

The permit requires that water diversion at the pumping site not exceed 250 cubic feet (1,870 gallons) per-second, allow at least 50 cubic feet of water (374 gallons) per-second to flow past the diversion point and a “set aside” of 20,000 acre feet of water for existing and future use in southeastern Oklahoma.

However, Kevin R. Kemper, the Norman attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the approval of the permit was not the end of his client’s fight against the plan.

“It’s not over just because they granted that stupid permit,” Kemper said. “The fight has just begun.”

The lawsuit filed in Pushmataha County alleges that the hydrology models the board used to make the decision was based on measurements of the Kiamichi River prior to Sardis dam being built, that the board did not properly consider the environmental and economic impacts on landowners on the river and that the board’s analysis focused on domestic and appropriated uses rather than true beneficial use of the water.

The observation tower on Sardis Lake, near Clayton. Water flowing out of the lake becomes Jackfork Creek, which flows into the Kiamichi River. Oklahoma City’s current plan is to divert water released into the Kiamichi River about 39 miles downstream from Sardis Lake, near Moyers. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

The suit also alleges that property owners along the Kiamichi River basin were not properly notified of the city’s revised application. The notice of public hearings on the issue was published in local newspapers, but the petitioners argue that all landowners should have been notified individually.

The OWRB has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit, but will likely do so soon, said Cole Perryman, director of communications for the OWRB.

“We have reviewed the petition, and are drafting a response,” Perryman said. “We have no further comment at this time.”

However, on Nov. 16, Oklahoma City filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, stating that it is an indispensable party to the suit but was not named as a defendant and therefore the case should be dismissed. No action has yet been taken on the city’s motion.

A spokeswoman for Oklahoma City Water Utility Trust did not return a phone message by The Frontier on Tuesday. However, the lawsuit was on the Trust’s agenda for its Tuesday meeting, though discussion about the suit was to be held in executive session, which is closed to the public.

Debbie Leo, who owns Miller Lake Retreat near the Kiamichi River, is a plaintiff in the suit. Leo said she and others who live in the area face an uphill battle against Oklahoma City, but that the fight is one to preserve their way of life.

“We’re going to fight all the way to the end,” Leo said. “This is the poorest county in Oklahoma, our resources are the water and wildlife. It’s what brings people down to the area and it helps fuel our businesses that rely on it. It helps us maintain them and find a niche to make a moderate living.”

Leo said she is concerned that Oklahoma City will continue to reach further into other areas of southeastern Oklahoma to pull water from there to the central part of the state. The tribes’ lawsuit did well to preserve tribal interests at stake, she said, but nontribal individuals and entities from the area have had little say in the process.

“In the end, their (the tribes’) best does not cover the rest of us. I’m glad they saved the water, to a point,” Leo said. “The rest of us need to be able to have a seat at the table in negotiations as well. They can’t just put us aside.”

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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