Community , ON Services , Government , Legal

Osage Nation asserts Water Sovereignty and issues first water well drilling permit

SKIATOOK, Okla. – Osage Nation Environmental and Natural Resources Director Jann Hayman handed a piece of paper to Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear on the grounds of the Skiatook Osage Casino. The paper was the first-ever water well drilling permit issued by the Nation.

“It’s just a piece of paper in one respect, but it’s huge for us,” Standing Bear said. “This is the first permit ever issued by this government, and to me it’s historical. And I know to some it’s just a piece of paper. But everyone here understands we’re talking about a couple of hundred years of our sovereignty. So, standing up for our water sovereignty is honoring all those who came before us, and I thank Jann [Hayman], and your team, and Mark [Simms], Kim [Pearson], for making this happen. Everybody here for making it happen and I’m glad to be part of it.” 

The water well permit was issued to the Osage Nation Gaming Enterprise for five years at a signing ceremony at the Skiatook Osage Casino on Sept. 18. The Gaming Enterprise Board Chairman, Mark Simms, was on site to sign the permit. The drilling site is just west of the Skiatook Osage Casino.

Executive Director for Osage Casinos, Kimberly Pearson, said “it took about six months to determine the right site. We looked at drilling in Tulsa originally but with the construction [of the new hotel and casino] decided that wasn’t our best option.”

Pearson said the drilling company they contracted is Osage-owned Roper Company LLC. The company will be drilling for freshwater that will hopefully tie into the Casino’s irrigation system, she said.

Craig Walker, the Environmental Project Specialist for the ENR Department, said they used an Integrated Water Model to find the location for freshwater by the casino. In 2012, the United States Geological Survey did a flyover of Osage County to locate freshwater and saltwater and worked closely with the Nation’s ENR Department. They developed a Scientific Investigations Report 2014-5134 titled “Description of Landscape Features, Summary of Existing Hydrologic Data, and Identification of Data Gaps for the Osage Nation, Northeastern Oklahoma, 1890-2012.”

“That study is for the whole county, so we have a countywide model that we can use,” said Hayman. “From our perspective, especially from our department and the Osage Nation, [the USGS report] is going to help us manage the Nation’s water in the future, long-term.”

The ENR Department is also working from the Osage Nation Water Regulations, a 10-page document that can be found on the department’s website. The regulations were formed in part from the work by the now-dissolved Osage Nation Water Rights Task Force, which then-Congressman Geoffrey Standing Bear chaired. He dissolved the task force in 2015 stating, “We have turned ideas into actions for the benefit of our people and for the good of justice.”

According to ONCA 12-68, sponsored by then-Congressman Standing Bear and signed into law by then-Principal Chief Scott Bighorse in 2014, all natural resource regulatory authority is vested in the ENR Department.

Oklahoma Water Resource Board

Standing Bear said the water well issue came to the forefront when they discovered the OWRB, a state entity, had issued about 28 water well permits in Osage County.

“It occurred to us that they had no right to permit our water. So, once we realized the OWRB has been permitting, they’re invading our territory,” Standing Bear said. “But we always try to get along with our neighbors and what we have decided to do is take a very peaceful approach and to start with permitting our own wells and putting everyone on notice that the 1.5 million-acre underground reservation belongs to the Osage people.”

Hayman said her department is currently working in conjunction with the AG’s Office to address unauthorized drilling.

The underground reservation is the Osage Mineral Estate. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees the oil and gas drilling of the mineral estate and the headright holders are the beneficiaries. However, the water is under Osage Nation authority and is owned by the Osage people, said Standing Bear, and it must be permitted.

“[It] is not only a piece of paper, but behind it are the regulations of our ENR Department, and behind it are the laws of the Osage Nation, and the key to all this is something called the 1906 Act. And then behind it, is the treaties with the Great and Little Osage,” he said. “That’s the chain of authority that was behind that permit for water. Our treaties, the 1906 Act, our Osage Constitution, our Osage laws, our Osage regulations and the administration. That is a lot of Osages struggling for a long time to make something happen.”

Standing Bear said the Nation will begin by issuing water permits for federal trust land, and next will be restricted Indian lands, which are lands owned by an Osage but are not federal trust lands.  He said once the Osage Nation Attorney General’s Office gives approval the Nation will issue water well permits, to Osages and non-Osages alike, for the entire mineral estate.  

He said there would no doubt be naysayers and other non-Osage entities, like the OWRB, that will lay claim to the water, but like with the Osage Nation Police Department, the Nation’s Tobacco Compact, and the Nation’s Gaming Compact with the state, it all takes negotiation and compromise to reach a settlement.

“What that means in reality is we’re going to be sitting down with the landowners, the Oklahoma Water Resource Board, negotiating solutions like we did with the police, tobacco, gaming – what happens if you stay in this business long enough, eventually you work out a negotiated agreement where everybody wins,” he said. “That takes years, and in water, it’s going to take years. However, we have to start somewhere and you can say we started today, here in Skiatook.”

However far into the future that may be, Standing Bear said he hopes to meet with the OWRB and the state to begin those discussions and negotiations soon.

“We’re permitting our own wells and putting everyone on notice; the 1.5 million-acre mineral estate belongs to us and the water belongs to the Osage people,” Standing Bear said. “In 1872, we bought this land and that was the deal; the water came with it.”

For more information about the Environmental and Natural Resources Department and to download a copy of the Nation's Water Regulations, visit their website at https://www.osagenation-nsn.gov/what-we-do/environmental-natural-resources