The Supreme Court Will Decide if North Texas Can Take Oklahoma's Water

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With North Texas' population exploding and near-perennial drought seeming more and more like a certainty rather than a fluke, state water planners have been scrambling to secure new supplies, going further and further afield in search of waterways that haven't been tapped out.

Several years ago, that quest took the Tarrant Regional Water District to Oklahoma, where they hoped to purchase rights to 150 billion gallons from the southeastern part of the state to pipe to its customers in 11 counties. Oklahoma wouldn't mind. The state has 10 times the water it needs. Certainly it wouldn't deny a thirsty neighbor a mere sip.

Oklahoma's response was less than neighborly. It viewed the water district's request as an attempt to grab the state's natural resources, and the legislature passed laws putting a moratorium on out-of-state water sales. TRD sued in 2007 to stop the laws, and the two parties have been locked in a legal scuffle ever since.

The dispute has now made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case on Tuesday.

SCOTUS Blog has a detailed breakdown of the legal issues at play, but the argument centers on the Red River Compact, a 1978 agreement between Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas divvying the water in the Red River basin.

Under the terms of the agreement, each state is entitled to 25 percent of the excess water flowing into a particular basin. TRD contends that this water can be taken from anywhere in the basin, regardless of political boundaries. Oklahoma thinks, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agrees, that this only applies to water within a state's own borders.

Reuters reports that it's impossible to tell from Tuesday's oral arguments how the court will rule but notes that several justices "voiced concerns about the water district's argument."

One was Justice Samuel Alito, who told the water district's lawyer, Charles Rothfeld, that the image of Texas having the right to "go into Oklahoma" was troubling.

"I mean, it sounds like they are going to send in the National Guard or the Texas Rangers," Alito said.

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared more sympathetic to the water district, noting that the "whole point" of the compact is that the states all ceded some rights.

"Each state has to give up a little here or a little there to solve a problem," he said.

The court is expected to decide in June. What they rule will have a major impact for all of North Texas. If the region's growth continues, it probably won't be long before other local water districts go knocking on other states' doors with an empty cup. The city of Dallas recently filed a brief in support of TRD's argument.

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9 comments
ebailey75057
ebailey75057

I'm for a national water pipeline system.  Currently the Mississippi river is overflowing its banks with snow melt.  Pump that water into the pipeline and send it where it is needed most, instead of watching it flow down to the Gulf of Mexico.  During spring floods turn on the pumps!!!     

jerrya1066
jerrya1066

I think the real issue is Oklahomans can't agree on who gets the money when this runoff water is sold.  Right now, they are giving it away by allowing runoff water to flow into the Red River and ultimately, the Gulf.  Someone is going to make a lot of money, be it local governments, Indian Tribes, OK, the region or a combo.  They have smartly run a campaign to demonize Texans as wasteful water hogging brutes who want to steal their precious resources.  That is easy to sell to our northern neighbors, but not factually based.  Of course, Texans can/should conserve water...just as Oklahomans should.  Even huge conservation efforts (which I fully support) will not make up for the fact that the N. Tx population is exploding as people form all over move here.  That combined with multi year drought results in a permanent condition of not being able to meet N. Tx water needs.  Hopefully, the Sp Ct. will make a wise decision    

WhiteWhale
WhiteWhale

So more accurately this issue is whether a Texas entity can buy Oklahoma water?

1dailyreader
1dailyreader

Texans just can't seem to conserve when it comes to water.  Water is abundant in OK but it has areas in drought too.  What happens when the water runs low there?  Where will they get water? We just need to quit wasting so much water.

rain392
rain392

Sounds like we ought to be sending water from the spring flooding in the Midwest down the Keystone  instead of dirty stinky oil which is going to end up outside the country anyhow.  That would actually benefit dry Texas and other dry states.   Spills from the pipelines would just improve ground water rather than contaminating the areas it spills onto.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@1dailyreader This is from SE OK, they have abundant water there.  In fact, a volume of water that exceeds Manhattan's daily supply pours from this River, on an Indian Reservation into the Red River, where it is cannot ever be used again--remember the Zebra mussels?  The Red River is also a saline river so again the water is worthless once it enters the river.  Long ago N TX contracted with the Indians for that water, the Appeals court affirmed that contract, and OK was instructed to make terms for the water.  That's where the case sits entering the Supreme's review. 

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@rain392 

Good luck with that - Midwesterners and Canadians are very protective of the huge reserve of fresh water that they happen to be sitting on. Not to mention that there are already two huge pipelines that bring that water south in the forms of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Yours proposal to raid their stash wouldn't be the first to get shot down. 

1dailyreader
1dailyreader

@scottindallas @1dailyreader Once OK deals with this water issue with TX, a decision on water rights still has to be made regarding the state of OK with tribes from southeast OK.  Many years ago, me and a group of my friends were discussing water and the possibility that it will be in short supply due to the way it was and is being wasted.  The common thought was "it rains all the time, water will be here forever".  Yes, that's true, but all water is not good.  The Zebra mussel issue you mentioned is but one example.

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