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SCOTUS Ruling on Water Could Spur Change in Policy

June 13, 2013

Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over, goes the old saw about western water issues, and one of those fights was decided today in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a case that could have significant implications for regional water wars throughout the nation, the court ruled that Texas can’t jam a pipe into Oklahoma to get high-quality water for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Texas and Oklahoma are part of a four-state compact (with Louisiana and Arkansas) that divvies up the water on the Red River.  Each state is entitled to divert water from a specific section of the river, and each is limited to a 25 percent share.  The problem for Texas is that its section of the Red has pretty funky water, with high salinity being the greatest concern.

So Texas decided to stick a pipe into Oklahoma’s section of the river, where water quality was much higher.  Oklahoma remonstrated.  In a unanimous decision, the court sided with Oklahoma, establishing that state statutes protecting their water preempt any interstate water agreements.

The ruling is sure to affect policies in other states with limited water resources.  There are more than two dozen similar compacts in the U.S.; most are in the West.

Although California doesn’t have a compact precisely like that governing the Red River, it does have agreements with Nevada on the disposition of water in the Tahoe Basin and the Truckee, Carson and Walker Rivers.

Tensions have sometimes run high between the two states over water quality standards for Lake Tahoe and the affected rivers, said Carolyn Remick, the executive director of UC’s Berkeley Water Center, with California generally favoring higher water quality standards than Nevada.  It is unclear how today’s ruling will affect the respective positions of the two states, Remick said in a phone interview.

“But I think [the case] is another indication that we may be approaching the limits of historical water policy, the old school approach that favors exporting water long distances from water-rich areas to water-poor areas,” Remick said.  “It’s an approach that just isn’t working that well.   Ultimately we’re going to have to rely more on solutions that emphasize local and regional sources, conservation, and recycling.”

–Glen Martin

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