, Muskogee, OK

October 20, 2012

Water rights raise splash in race

2nd District foes wrangle over resource

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

This is one in a series leading up to the Nov. 6 elections.

While the state has grappled the past few years developing a comprehensive water plan to ensure water security well into the future, some facets of this issue can be dealt with only in Congress.

In the 2nd Congressional District, which stretches across the eastern one-third of Oklahoma from Kansas to Texas, fierce battles over water rights are playing out. Those battles have centered on pollution flowing from upstream states and the over-allocation of water rights.

Because many of eastern Oklahoma’s reservoirs were constructed by the federal government and pollution problems involve interstate disputes, resolutions will be found at the federal level. One issue in particular is the allocation of water without regard for outdoor recreation and tourism and interbasin transfers of water.

These issues have become a cornerstone of debate for the three candidates competing for the seat occupied by U.S. Rep. Dan Boren. The Muskogee Democrat opted against seeking a fifth term for a seat coveted by the Republican Party.

Democratic nominee Rob Wallace is airing commercials accusing his Republican rival of siding with interests that favor selling the rights to water within the 2nd Congressional District to Oklahoma City and Texas municipalities. GOP contender Markwayne Mullin disputes the allegation.

Michael G. Fulks, who is competing for the post as an independent, opposes what is known as interbasin transfers. He believes those water resources should be used to attract business to eastern Oklahoma.

“Nonconsumptive water use is a cornerstone of tourism, which is a major factor in our rural economies and has not yet been given the attention it requires,” Fulks said. “Instead of sending water away, I would encourage businesses to bring their jobs to our area so they can enjoy the other benefits we offer such as lower property costs and a skilled workforce.”

Mullin, who owns a plumbing services company based in Broken Arrow, distanced himself from criticism about his involvement with the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce. The organization has backed plans and other organizations that want to sell eastern Oklahoma water to Texas and Oklahoma City.

“Our water here in the 2nd District belongs to us and no one else,” Mullin said. “I am opposed to selling it, and I am opposed to doing anything else with it that would take away our natural resources without the support of those who should benefit.”

Wallace, a former state and federal prosecutor whose business record in the private sector has come under attack, said water rights is an issue about which he has “been very outspoken.” Wallace said his position “is simple: Eastern Oklahoma’s water must be protected.”

“I’ll stand up to anyone who wants to sell it to Texas or give it away to the western part of the state,” Wallace said. “There are special interests who want to give away our precious water. My opponent would side with those special interests, shipping out water elsewhere.”

Wallace said he believes those sovereign tribal governments “have a stake in rights to the water, and no one should be forcing a decision upon them.”

Wallace predicted pending lawsuits will fall in favor of the tribes, which he said he would work with “so we can protect all of our rights and our way of life.”

Neither Fulks nor Mullin weighed in on the issue of tribal rights, but Mullin said he would “always fight to protect our resources.” Mullin, however, offered no details about how he would accomplish the goals he proposed.

Fulks said he would “work to develop a water plan that addresses all the needs of Oklahoma, not only the special interests who want to divert water for their own uses.”

Fulks, Mullin and Wallace will meet Nov. 6 in the general election.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot