Fort Worth’s water supply in court’s decision


  On April 23, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case (Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann) that will determine the future of Fort Worth-Dallas and regions like it across the West. I’m referring to regions that are 1) rapidly growing and 2) depending on mutually agreed-upon, Congressionally-ratified interstate water compacts for a portion of their water supply. Among fast-growing major American cities, Fort Worth is preeminent. It ranked No. 1 for growth among cities of 500,000 residents or greater between 2000 and 2010, when its population expanded by nearly 40 percent. At the pace of the last two decades, by 2030 there will be 1 million people living here. Water compacts are the untold story of western growth. Between 1920 and 1980, more than two dozen agreements were painstakingly negotiated. They cover most of the major cities and watersheds west of the Mississippi, including the Red River, the subject of the case the Supreme Court will hear. Collectively, these interstate water compacts have put to rest once bitter rivalries among western states and substituted a stable, predictable framework for sharing and planning. The road to the Supreme Court began when in 2004 Oklahoma passed a series of laws that effectively negated the 1980 Red River Compact. Under that agreement, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana had equal claim (25 percent each, beyond a minimum flow) on the water in the Red River watershed between Denison Dam and the Louisiana border in areas not reserved for one state or another.  As Texas tributaries to the river do not account for Texas’ allocation, this meant that Texas would have to reach into another state (i.e., Oklahoma) to access its quota. When faced with a request to enforce the compact, the Oklahoma legislature essentially said, “Regardless of what the agreement says, you can’t have that water.”  In the lawsuits that followed, the district and circuit courts misread a provision of the compact. The provision said that despite sharing its water with Texas, Oklahoma would not give Texas jurisdiction over environmental regulation, criminal law or anything else on Oklahoma waterways – only access to water. The lower courts read the provision far more narrowly: that Oklahoma didn’t have to give Texas water, either. That is, they interpreted the provision to repeal the very agreement in which it appeared. The same type of provision appears in most western water compacts. Imagine the chaos if the Supreme Court does not reverse the decisions of the lower courts. We will be looking at, as one eastern newspaper wrote, the “U.S. on the verge of water anarchy.” As the chamber has advocated at the state level for years, both conservation and new supplies are necessary to serve our growing economic and personal needs. Major manufacturers and other employers must have affordable access to mass quantities of water to produce goods.  Without successful water planning and availability, the Texas Water Development board estimates businesses and workers could lose an estimated $115.7 billion by 2060. Losses to state and local business taxes associated with commerce could reach roughly $9.8 billion in 2060, translating to 1.1 million jobs lost by 2060. Our economic future and quality of life – as well as the West’s and our nation’s – will be at stake when the Supreme Court meets on April 23.   Bill Thornton is president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. The Tarrant Regional Water District contributed to this op-ed.