After Supreme Court Water Ruling, What’s Next for Texas?

Sarah Tran is Assistant Professor of Law at SMU.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Tran and SMU.

Sarah Tran is Assistant Professor of Law at SMU.

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a major case pitting the water needs of North Texas against its northern neighbor. At issue was Texas’ ability to access water from the Red River in Oklahoma.

The Tarrant Regional Water District serves 11 counties in fast-growing North Texas, including the city of Fort Worth. It argued that the state is due that water under an interstate water sharing agreement. Because it was not flowing downstream, Texas had the right to go upstream, into Oklahoma, to get it.

Oklahoma passed laws banning that from happening.  So, six years ago, the water district sued. It said the ban violated a water compact agreed to by the states.

This week the Supreme Court sided with Oklahoma, saying that state’s laws trump the interstate compact.  Sarah Tran is a law professor at Southern Methodist University who calls the ruling a win for advocates of state sovereignty. She says Texas will have to go “back to the drawing board” to get access to the water.

So what does this mean for the future of water in North Texas?

“Texas has the option of trying to negotiate with Oklahoma.” Tran says. “Its going to have to pay a lot more. Or it’s going to have to think about ways of conservation or desalinization. Basically, Texas’s costs are going to rise.”

In a statement on its website, the water district announced its disappointment with the ruling, noting that population in the area is expected to double over the next fifty years. Tran thinks the ruling could, in fact, have an impact on growth.

“It may affect the growth in the country, with Oklahoma having this water resource, maybe more businesses will want to move there,” she said.

The water district had argued that a ruling in favor of Oklahoma could impact other interstate water compacts, but Tran says a ruling in favor of Texas may have actually been more disruptive to current arrangements.

“If the opposite results had come out, if Texas had won in the preemption issue, it would have been sweeping,” she said. “Everyone would be scrambling to look at their compacts and trying to figure out if they can go into other states to get their water.”

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