Don't look now, but Oklahoma could be on the verge of a Civil War.
The powder keg is water -- who owns it and who stands to benefit financially the most from its possible sale.
For the moment, it's a delicate, behind-the-scenes negotiating waltz, but it won't be for long, especially since the Legislature reconvenes Feb. 7.
The tension between those who favor selling water -- both intrastate and interstate -- and those opposed has been acute for years, but it's been building in recent months as a comprehensive statewide water plan nears completion this spring.
Moreover, Southeastern Oklahoma interests are increasingly dismayed over a proposed sale of Sardis Lake water rights to Oklahoma City -- not only because it doesn't benefit the poverty-riddled area around the reservoir, but also because the sales price is a pittance of what water is being valued at elsewhere in this country.
Entering this minefield is the Oklahoma Legislature. It didn't get much attention in the mainstream media, but state Senate Republicans last week confirmed publicly that the sale of Oklahoma water is on the table for full discussion.
In fact, new Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, indicated it's something already on his radar screen, a big hint that thirsty North Texas interests -- who sued the state in federal court in an effort to force a sale -- soon could be opening the taps on Oklahoma water.
"I think it's something we need to look at -- have had that discussion," Bingman said. "We have a tremendous resource with water.
"We're in a federal lawsuit over that issue, but if there's a way that we can bring all the parties affected to the table and discuss how we want to use that resource, we need to do that."
Oklahomans are not necessarily enamored of the prospect of selling water to North Texas. Maybe it's the old gridiron rivalry transferred into politics, but it's clear that more Oklahomans are coming to view water as the 21st century's most vital natural resource.
Those who have water will prosper, those who don't will wither -- or at least their growth will be stunted. It's easy to see why some Oklahomans figure it's our state's turn to prosper economically, after years in Texas' shadow.
Don't take my word for it: a SoonerPoll last year found more than half Oklahomans surveyed are opposed to the sale of water -- only about a third support it.
As always, the issue is money. Big money. Huge money. Money like Oklahoma has never seen.
No one knows for sure how much excess water Oklahoma has -- and we won't know until the water study is completed, probably in March. But if even modest estimates are accurate, the state could harvest billions of dollars off the sale to North Texas and other thirsty, out-of-state regions.
The first order of business, of course, is to ensure that Oklahoma has sufficient water to meet its future needs, especially if climate change ushers in worse-than-historical droughts.
The second is to determine how to maximize this marvelous resource and lift Oklahoma from the bottom of almost every socioeconomic category known to mankind.
And we should take the time to give thanks for U.S. Sen. Robert S. Kerr and our forward-looking congressional representatives from the mid-20th century for helping create this abundance.
Oklahoma's leaders and citizens also need to be clear-eyed about this: the staggering amounts of money involved in water sales could tempt the greediest among us to stake a claim to more than their fair share.
We're not even close to selling water, and Oklahomans are suspicious of Texans, Southeastern Oklahomans don't trust the metro areas, and the tribes are scrambling to ensure a place at the negotiating table.
Have you noticed the explosion of water-related TV commercials sponsored by the Chickasaws and the Choctaws? Think they are just celebrating Oklahoma's aquatic abundance? Hardly. They're staking their claims -- in the public consciousness -- to water rights.
The last time Oklahoma seriously tiptoed to the edge of a water sales agreement was in Gov. Frank Keating's administration. The deal blew up. The Legislature imposed a moratorium on out-of-state water sales. And North Texas sued.
Now Oklahoma has the worst budget crisis since the Great Depression. Draconian cuts in state services will be made worse this year. State revenues are at least a half-billion-dollars short of staying even with last year's shrunken budget. And government-haters in the Legislature are perpetually bent on more tax cuts.
What could be better to ease the pain -- maybe even make deeper tax cuts possible, perhaps even elimination of the state income tax -- than a multi-billion-dollar windfall from water sales?
Of course, folks in Southeastern Oklahoma -- historically the state's most impoverished region -- aren't keen on the notion of siphoning all the money to Oklahoma City to finance government operations statewide.
Already, state Rep. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester, has introduced legislation that would ban any water sales until the statewide comprehensive water plan is complete and reviewed by independent water experts. He also is proposing that any new water allocations that exceed 25,000-acre-feet per year be subject to legislative approval.
It's easy to envision ferocious battles over how lawmakers and state leaders attempt to resolve all the water related issues, especially given the financial stakes. And it won't just be water-abundant eastern Oklahoma vs. the metro areas. Agriculture, for one, will have a big dog in this fight -- water being essential to farming and ranching.
Stuck in the crosshairs is the state GOP. Now that Republicans dominate the Legislature -- 70 of 101 in the House, 32 of 48 in the Senate -- they will have to find ways to bring together the competing interests of their rural and urban caucus members.
Watch this closely. Who gets the water and who gets the money will determine Oklahoma's future.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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