Court sides with Oklahoma in Red River dispute

Marice Richter Special to the Business Press

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 13 settled a water rights dispute between the Tarrant Regional Water District and Oklahoma with a ruling that leaves the water district to search for other water supplies. Water district officials said they were disappointed with the justices’ rejection of its claim to billions of gallons of water from an Oklahoma water basin under a 30-year-old four-state compact approved by Congress in 1980. Oklahoma law, passed long after the compact was signed, allows the state to block the sale of water out of state. The justices upheld a lower court ruling that Oklahoma’s law is valid. The water district sued Oklahoma in 2007 to claim Texas’ 25 percent share of the water in the basin to help meet the water needs of a large portion of North Texas, including Fort Worth and Tarrant County. Under the compact, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana were all expected to equally share the water from the Oklahoma basin, disregarding state lines and state sovereignty. “The Compact does not pre-empt the Oklahoma water statutes,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the Supreme Court ruling. She further stated that “Tarrant’s claims lack merit.” Louisiana and Arkansas sided with Oklahoma in the dispute. Lower courts ruled for Oklahoma, including the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It found that the Red River Compact protects Oklahoma’s water statutes from the legal challenge. The Obama administration backed the Texas district at the Supreme Court, saying Oklahoma may not categorically prohibit Texas water users from obtaining water in Oklahoma. But the administration took no position on whether the Texans ultimately should get the water they are seeking in this case. The water district is the largest water district in Texas, serving 1.7 million people in an 11-county area. “This ruling is very disappointing, particularly since so much of this water is not being used and is going to waste,” Jim Oliver, general manager of the water district told the Fort Worth Business Press. “Securing additional water resources is essential to North Texas’ continued growth and prosperity and will remain one of our top priorities,” Oliver said. “The decision does not address the problem of Oklahoma’s lack of water infrastructure, and we believe solutions that benefit both Texas and Oklahoma still exist. “We will continue to explore and advance those opportunities,” Oliver said. Tarrant water board President Vic Henderson said bringing water from Oklahoma was the most efficient and economical option for the district and its customers. “It’s certainly disappointing because we felt very strongly that this was our best option,” Henderson said. Oklahoma officials praised the ruling. “Today’s ruling is great news for the state of Oklahoma and yet another victory in the effort to protect our state’s water resources,” Gov. Mary Fallin said in a statement. “We’ve maintained all along that Oklahoma must have the ability to set its own water policy and today’s unanimous Supreme Court decision solidifies that position.” J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said Oklahoma’s victory “should end, once and for all, Tarrant’s attempts to circumvent Oklahoma’s water management authority. “It’s also a victory for the seven mostly arid western states who sided with Oklahoma and stood to lose at least as much control over their limited surface water supplies,” Strong said. Tarrant water district officials have said an Oklahoma win could threaten interstate water compacts in other states, particularly in parch Western United States. Texas is also involved in water disputes with New Mexico and Mexico. Associated Press contributed to this report.