Thirsty States Take Water Battle To Supreme Court Texas and Oklahoma are fighting over access to the Red River. Fast-growing Texas is eager to fuel its expansion in a time of drought, while the poorer state of Oklahoma is water-rich. The court's decision could impact interstate water-sharing agreements across the country.


Thirsty States Take Water Battle To Supreme Court

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When you think of the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry, football probably comes to mind.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Red River Rivalry is on. The game never gets old. It always has a huge meaning.

MARTIN: But on Tuesday, the two states will face off in the U.S. Supreme Court. The winner gets water. And as Joe Wertz from member station KGOU reports, this is not a game.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: The story begins in North Texas, one of the fastest growing regions in one of the fastest growing states. Cities like Arlington and Fort Worth are expanding. Jobs, businesses and new development are booming.

LINDA CHRISTIE: It's a continuous rooftop from Dallas all the way to the Oklahoma border.

WERTZ: Linda Christie is the government relations director for the Tarrant Regional Water District, the water authority for an 11-county swath in north Texas. She says this economic engine is fueled, in part, by water. But drought has hit Texas hard. And she says all this growth could dry up.

CHRISTIE: Well, you can't have economic development of an area without a sustainable, stable water supply. All of the locations - watershed locations close by have been tapped for us. So now, we're going to have to go 200, 300 miles. And most of it would be water that is being pumped uphill.

WERTZ: The Red River seems like an ideal solution. It's fed by the Rocky Mountain snowpack. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Red River is not fed by the Rocky Mountain snowpack.] And it forms the border between Oklahoma and Texas as it flows southeast toward the Gulf of Mexico. The two states have a formal agreement on how to share water from the river. In 1980, Congress ratified the Red River Compact, giving Oklahoma and Texas, along with Arkansas and Louisiana, an equitable apportionment of water from the river and its tributaries. But what's equitable is arguable. Christie says Texas has to reach across the river to get its fair share.

CHRISTIE: The problem is, the Red River lies entirely within the state of Oklahoma.


WERTZ: Southeastern Oklahoma is the opposite of North Texas. Boarded-up storefronts decompose next to abandoned gas stations consumed by weeds. The people here are poor. But the land is water-rich, thanks to a confluence of rivers and reservoirs built with federal funding. Cities and towns throughout Oklahoma rely on this water. And the state has blocked Texas' efforts to tap it. And here's where the Supreme Court comes in: Texas says that 1980 compact gives it access to water that flows into the Red River, including water in the Kiamichi River.

CHRISTIE: And you look at the attachment that describes the sub-basin - and it's highlighted in pink - it shows that it goes across state boundary lines.

WERTZ: And that's the rub. The Kiamichi River lies entirely within Oklahoma's borders. Oklahoma argues the Red River Compact authority does not supersede its own.

State Sen. Jerry Ellis' Capitol office is 200 miles away from his Southeastern Oklahoma district, but he's still surrounded by water. There's a small water fountain in the middle of his office wall.


WERTZ: A piece of paper is taped to it, and it bears a handwritten message: Water For Texas No More. Ellis says North Texas hasn't gotten serious about conservation, and is lying about its water needs.

STATE SENATOR JERRY ELLIS: Our poor, thirsty people in Dallas, Texas - there's nobody thirsty in Dallas, Texas.

WERTZ: Sen. Ellis authored some of those protectionist laws that restricted out-of-state water exports. When it comes to water, Ellis says every state is out for themselves, especially in a drought. He doesn't believe Texas will be a good neighbor.

ELLIS: You know, it's like giving Jack the Ripper a set of hunting knives on his promise to use them only at the dinner table. I'm telling you right now, it's not going to happen.

WERTZ: For years, Oklahoma and Texas have been trading legal and PR attacks in the Tarrant case. Oklahoma has won all the lower court battles, so far. But Texas is encouraged that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Tarrant hopes Oklahoma's anti water-export laws are struck down, and the authority of the interstate compact is reaffirmed. The Tarrant water district has also been emboldened by a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the U.S. solicitor general, who sided with Texas.

STEPHEN DRAPER: It all revolves around the question of whether water is a commodity, in and of itself.

WERTZ: That's Stephen Draper, a water expert who helped write guidelines for interstate water-sharing for the American Society of Civil Engineers. He says the outcome of the Oklahoma-Texas water fight could have national ripple effects. Here's why: The Red River Compact contains a lot of the same boilerplate language used in other state-to-state, water-sharing agreements. If the court upholds Oklahoma's anti-export laws, Draper says other states could be inspired to pass similar laws of their own. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz.


MARTIN: That story comes to us from StateImpact, a collaboration between NPR and member stations.


MARTIN: And you are listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News.

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