WASHINGTON – The Dallas-Fort Worth area lost its attempt to secure Oklahoma water in a unanimous Supreme Court ruling Thursday.
In the ruling written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor,the court said that the Tarrant Regional Water District did not have the right to reach into Oklahoma for water for its growing metropolitan area. While Tarrant argued that its water quota was not being fulfilled based on a 40-year-old report and a four-state water compact,the decision said that the Tarrant district was not entitled to water in other states.
“This is a major victory for Oklahoma with all nine justices agreeing with our argument that Texas does not have the right to come into Oklahoma and take our water,” Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in a press release.
Jim Oliver,the Tarrant Regional Water District general manager,expressed his dismay with the decision in a statement.
“Securing additional water resources is essential to North Texas’ continued growth and prosperity and will remain one of our top priorities,” Oliver said. “The population in our service area is expected to double over the next 50 years so we will act quickly to develop new sources.”
Rep,Tom Cole,R-Okla.,whose congressional district lies along the river,issued a statement praising the decision,saying it protects Oklahoma “against raids on our precious Oklahoma water resources indiscriminately.”
“While the Dallas-Fort Worth area is rapidly growing and understandably in need of an expanded water supply,this need does not excuse water providers from taking on our side of the river,” he said.
The Red River Compact
The decision found that the Tarrant Regional Water District’s claim to the water was not justified in the 1980 Red River Compact between Texas,Oklahoma,Arkansas and Louisiana. Under the agreement,each of the four states is supposed to get its share of Red River water by dividing the river into several sections and subsections. The subsection in question is known as Subbasin 5,which includes a Red River tributary,the Kiamichi River.
Tarrant claimed that it was entitled to 25 percent of the water in Subbasin 5,but was only receiving 16 percent. Because of this,it said the water district had the right to reroute water flowing on Oklahoma land to North Texas.
Oklahoma disagreed,saying that the compact caps the amount of water a state can take at 25 percent and does not guarantee that amount.
The compact is silent concerning states’ rights to cross borders. The court ruling said Oklahoma was correct in its interpretation.
The court said that three things persuaded the justices that cross-border rights were not allowed in the compact.
The first was that states rarely give up water rights,and when they do,it is made clear in most similar water compacts. The second was that past compacts have explicitly laid out cross-border rights,which this compact did not. Third,the court questioned Tarrant’s actions before filing suit. Before Tarrant tried to gain what it said were its rights,it tried to buy water from Oklahoma.
While Tarrant argued that it has only 16 percent of the water,according to a 1970 engineering report,Oklahoma estimated that Tarrant may have access to at least 29 percent.
The Court refused to take up the issue of the math because the justices decided Tarrant is not guaranteed 25 percent of the water in the compact in the first place.
“Fortunately,we need not delve into calculations based on a decades-old engineering report to resolve this argument,” Sotomayor wrote. “As we have explained … Texas does not have a minimum guarantee of 25 percent of the excess water.”
The decision comes about two months after arguments were heard.
The court will meet on Monday to issue more opinions. Several major cases remain to be decided,including two gay marriage cases and race-based college admissions,which is a Texas case.
Reach reporter Robert R. Denton at [email protected] or 202-326-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.