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

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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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson