So the great 21st century Oklahoma water war has come to this: A federal court-appointed mediator will meet with a 19-member task force in an effort to resolve powerful disputes over who controls the uses of our most precious natural resource.
Strike up the band! It's at least good news that the competing interests are talking, right?
Well ... not so fast.
It is clear that as world population growth taxes Earth's resources to the max, water will be to the next 100 years what oil was to the last -- pivotal to our state's success or failure.
And it's apparent to anyone watching local TV that an apocalyptic battle over the life-sustaining commodity is brewing -- hence the tsunami of slick ads from various groups portraying themselves as the true guardians of Oklahoma's bounty.
But it's just as obvious -- regrettably -- that the task force, as originally constituted, is nothing more than politics-as-usual at a time when the state's destiny depends on statesmanship.
Too harsh? Cynical? Unfair?
If your knee-jerk response would be "yes," then answer these two questions: First, to whom does Oklahoma water belong? Second, who is over-represented on the task force?
The answers are simple: the masses and the 1 percent, respectively.
The task force, you see, doesn't reflect Oklahoma as a whole. It's a stacked deck. It's dominated by the two heavyweights duking it out in federal court to determine who's going to win the upper hand in state water policy.
The pugilists are Oklahoma City and its silk-stocking elites and two of the state's most powerful tribes, the Chickasaws and Choctaws.
Both want a say -- no, more than just a say; they want power -- over how southeastern Oklahoma water can be utilized in the coming generations.
Look at the 19 members of the task force:
Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby and three Choctaw Nation officies -- Chief Greg Pyle, Assistant Chief Gary Batton and lobbyist Brian McClain -- have a seat at the table representing tribal rights.
Oklahoma City's aspirations are represented by Gov. Mary Fallin, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett, Oklahoma Secretary of State Glenn Coffee, Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, OGE Energy's Chairman and CEO Pete Delaney, Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry, Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon, Devon Energy CEO Larry Nichols, former Oklahoman publisher David Thompson, Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch and financier Mike Samis.
Notice a glaring omission?
Where are the voices of southeastern Oklahoma, the region with the most to gain -- or lose -- depending on how the abundant area waters are parceled out?
There is Jason Hitch, chairman of one of the state's largest and wealthiest farming and ranching operations. But he's from Guymon, in the Panhandle, a day's drive from reservoirs and rivers at the heart of the fight.
There is Michael Cowley, former president and CEO of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. He's an attorney in Ardmore which is in southern, not southeastern Oklahoma.
Well, at least there's Pennie Embry of Eufaula, president of the Save Our Water group, and Amy Ford of Durant, a member of the State Board of Education. But the task force hardly could claim to represent a broad range of stakeholders -- where are the bed-and-breakfast owners, fishing guides or others from the tourism/recreation industry upon which much of the southeastern Oklahoma economy depends?
Task force apologists, of course, will assert that the Choctaws and Chickasaws are the de facto representatives of southeastern Oklahoma -- the region both tribes have called home since the 19th century.
But just because the tribal headquarters are located in the heart of Little Dixie doesn't mean the tribes' interests reflect the region's broader interests.
Realistically, tribal leadership is about the interests of the tribe, first and always. And in fact, that's as it should be.
It is true that what is good for southeastern Oklahoma almost assuredly would be good for the tribes. But it also is true that the tribes in the past were more than willing to join in plans that would yield a huge financial windfall through sale of Oklahoma water to Texas. There is no reason to think the tribes won't be willing to cut a similar deal again. Not everyone in southeastern Oklahoma thinks transferring water to North Texas is such a good idea.
And what of the Oklahoma City power-players? They have focused their efforts on seizing control of Sardis Lake. There are only two plausible reasons: One, they intend to rely on the reservoir to ensure the capital's growth potential. And two, they probably figure they can sell some water to North Texas, generating a financial bonanza for Oklahoma City that will benefit the rich powers-that-be that dominate the city's politics.
So let's consider the math: At best only two of the task force's 19 members could be said to represent the great unwashed in southeastern Oklahoma -- those whose hope for a brighter economic future depends on wise stewardship of the region's abundant, clean waters.
The overwhelming majority are like the proverbial aristocrats gathered around the castle's dining table, deciding who will command the most lucre -- all negotiated without one whit's care about the proletariat.
Let them eat cake, indeed.
Here is what we know and don't know so far about what is arguably the most important issue facing Oklahoma today:
We know Texas wants Oklahoma water. We don't know with certainty whether we can meet our own needs for the next 50 years, much less sell any to Texas.
We know the Choctaws and Chickasaws sued in federal court to thwart plans to siphon away Sardis Lake water to Oklahoma City. We don't know how the fight will end up -- will the tribes be able to successfully assert their 19th century treaty rights or will the case ultimately end up before a corporatist-dominated U.S. Supreme Court?
We know that the 19-member water task force is a stacked deck. What we don't know is whether the federal court-appointed mediator, Francis E. McGovern, will demand more seats at the negotiating table.
For Oklahoma's future, it is critical that he seriously consider just such a possibility.
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