One of the most nostalgic images you can summon is that of an old country mill, its big wheel turning as water from a rural stream ripples over its paddles.
As slowly as that wheel might have turned, it couldn’t be as slow as the wheels of justice – at least when that justice involves an interstate dispute over water rights.
In 2007, after trying unsuccessfully for years to buy water from Oklahoma, the Tarrant Regional Water District sued Texas’ neighbor to the north to force it to honor the Red River Compact, which allows Texas to capture water from Oklahoma for use here.
Two federal courts ruled against TRWD, the entity that owns Lake Bridgeport, Eagle Mountain Lake, Cedar Creek Lake and Richland-Chambers Reservoir. But the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and last Tuesday the dispute got its day in the nation’s highest court.
Attorneys representing TRWD argued that the compact – crafted in the 1970s and approved by Congress in 1980 – gives Texas the right to up to 25 percent of the water in the Kiamichi River sub-basin that flows into the Red River. The compact does not specify whether the water can be captured in Oklahoma, or only after it enters Texas.
Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas all signed the compact, each getting an equal 25 percent right to the excess water.
What TRWD wants to do is go into Oklahoma to get its share of the water – before it enters the Red River and is tainted by salt and other minerals that would require expensive cleanup.
Oklahoma contends that while Texas has a right to the water, they do not have the right to come into Oklahoma and get it.
Washington attorney Lisa Blatt argued for Oklahoma that no water agreement among states has ever allowed one state to reach into another without explicit provisions that spell out all of the conditions.
Charles A. Rothfield, who represented TRWD, told the justices Oklahoma was trying to back out of their bargain.
Chief Justice John Roberts said Oklahoma’s sovereignty would not be violated if Texas took water from within its borders.
“Compacts compromise the individual state sovereignty,” Roberts told Blatt, Oklahoma’s attorney. “That’s the whole point of them.”
Chad Lorance, communication manager for TRWD, said the Texas entity is simply trying to get Oklahoma to honor a decades-old agreement.
“Our case is simple,” he said in a news release issued after the Supreme Court arguments. “We want Oklahoma to honor a legally binding agreement with Texas.”
He explained that for a stretch of the Red River Basin, the Red River Compact gives Texas the right to a portion of the river and its tributaries’ flow – almost all of which is in Oklahoma.
“For nearly 10 years, Oklahoma has denied us this Congressionally ratified allocation,” he said. “Oklahoma won’t even allow its counties, municipalities or Indian tribes to sell us their water.”
He said if TRWD can’t gain access to the Oklahoma water, it will have to resort to “costlier, less energy efficient, and less environmentally friendly projects that bring water from much farther away.”
A ruling is expected in June.
HB 11 DIES, BUT WATER FUNDING STILL HAS BROAD SUPPORT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry Tuesday issued a statement on House Bill 11, co-authored by Rep. Phil King.
The bill, which would have moved $2 billion from the state’s Economic Stabilization or “Rainy Day” Fund into a Water Infrastructure Fund, was killed Monday on the House floor.
“The people of Texas expect their elected officials to address the water needs of our state, and we will do just that,” Perry said. “This issue is too important to leave its fate uncertain, and I will work with lawmakers to ensure we address this need in a fiscally responsible manner.”
Despite the setback in funding the state’s water plan, Caleb Troxclair of King’s office said he believes Gov. Perry’s statement was designed “to show his resolve that he would like to see the water plan funded, whether it comes from the Rainy Day Fund or not.”
Troxclair said some other bill may be used as a vehicle to provide that funding, which would underwrite loans for municipalities and other water utilities throughout the state to do local projects.