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Red River Water Rivalry Goes to U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear a major cross-border water case that pits Tarrant County against Oklahoma. North Texas wants water, but Oklahoma doesn't want to sell.

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The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a major cross-border water case that pits Tarrant County against the state of Oklahoma, according to a court order published Friday.

Fast-growing North Texas would like to buy water from Oklahoma reservoirs, but the Sooner state isn’t selling. So Tarrant County sued six years ago.

The court’s decision to take up the case, Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann, Rudolf J. et al, will come as a welcome news to North Texas officials, who had lost in the lower courts. Last January, the water district requested that the Supreme Court hear the case.

The Tarrant Regional Water District gets "another chance to make their arguments before the highest court in the land and try to convince them that they should be able to obtain this water," said Gabriel Eckstein, a professor at Texas-Wesleyan School of Law and an attorney with the firm Sullivan & Worcester.

The two states are part of the 1980 Red River Compact, which stipulates that signatory states get an “equitable” share of water. The Tarrant County officials say they want water flowing south out of Oklahoma, but that by the time the water reaches Texas it is essentially unusable, so they want to tap the reservoirs further upstream. Oklahoma state lawmakers have declined their request.

The U.S. solicitor general had recommended that the court take the case. But that recommendation was based on narrow grounds related to contract interpretation, according to Eckstein. "The question is going to be whether the court accepted on the narrow issues that the U.S. Solicitor-General recommended, or just broadly on all issues addressed by the lower court," he said.

A broader ruling could have implications for the few dozen other interstate water compacts around the nation.

According to SCOTUSblog, “the court is expected to use the case to clarify the right of a state to claim its share of a water rights compact from the waters of the shared river as it flows through a neighboring state.”

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