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Supreme Court Backs Oklahoma Over North Texas Water District

The United States Supreme Court has unanimously ruled in favor of Oklahoma in a major case over delivery of water from the Red River.

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday issued a unanimous ruling for Oklahoma over a North Texas water district in a case over delivery of water from the Red River.

The case, Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann, Rudolf J. et al., pitted fast-growing North Texas against the state of Oklahoma. The Tarrant Regional Water District, which serves Fort Worth and other North Texas communities, wanted to buy water from Oklahoma reservoirs, but Oklahoma passed laws that effectively meant it wouldn't sell.

The Tarrant district sued six years ago and has spent $6 million on the lawsuit, according to water district spokesman Chad Lorance. On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The Compact does not pre-empt the Oklahoma water statutes," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the Supreme Court opinion. She was referring to the 1980 Red River Compact, which stipulates that signatory states — which include Texas and Oklahoma — get an “equitable” share of water. The Tarrant district wants water flowing south out of Oklahoma, but they say 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 decision could have implications for other parts of the country. For example, legal experts have been interested in whether Oklahoma’s efforts to stop or discourage out-of-state water sales would be trumped by a multi-state compact.

Gabriel Eckstein, a law professor and water expert at the Texas Wesleyan School of Law who is also affiliated with the firm Sullivan and Worcester, said the ruling was not a "complete disaster" for the Tarrant water district. "They can still get the water," he said, but it will be much more expensive because the water will contain more particles, like salts, that must be cleaned and treated.

Still, he said, the decision is "going to hurt Texas, it’s going to hurt Tarrant County's objective of getting that water."

The decision comes against a backdrop of continued severe drought across Texas. Another North Texas water agency, the North Texas Municipal Water District, began limiting the use of lawn sprinklers to once a week starting June 1.

Texas also is battling for water from two other neighbors, New Mexico and Mexico.

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