Precious waters

Sardis Lake, a reservoir in southeastern Oklahoma young enough to have drowned saplings still poking through its surface and old enough to have become a renowned bass fishery, is not wanting for suitors.

By Felicity Barringer

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TUSKAHOMA, Okla. , April 11, 2011

Oklahoma City and fast-growing suburbs like Edmond want to see the water flowing through their shower heads someday. So do the water masters of Tarrant County, Tex., 200 miles to the south, who are looking to supply new subdivisions around Fort Worth and are suing for access.

Now another rival has arrived: the Choctaw andChickasaw tribes, who were exiled to southeastern Oklahoma 175 years ago and given land in the area.

Gregory Pyle, chief of the Choctaw nation, said his tribe would sue to win some of the water if necessary. “All this water was controlled originally by the Indian tribes in this area,” Mr. Pyle said. “It is all Choctaw and Chickasaw water.”

The tribes want the state to recognize them as joint owners. The issue has been increasingly on the minds of city planners in fast-developing cities as they contemplate the prospect of tapping other existing water sources.

By midcentury, water is expected to loom as large as oil in the economic and political life of the country, as parties race to lock up supplies. As droughts exacerbated byclimate change and by population growth expand in the Great Plains and the Southwest, Indian water rights loom as a largely unsettled — and unsettling — factor that could affect the price and availability of water to millions of homes and businesses.

“There are huge and vested rights to water that are unquantified,” said Taiawagi Helton, an expert on Indian law and water law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law and a member of the Cherokee tribe.

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