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Supreme Court Agrees To Hear Texas-Oklahoma Water Case

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Meredith Farmer
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UPDATE, 2 p.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court says it will hear hear the Tarrant Regional Water District's case to let it divert and use Oklahoma water.  The water district's general manager, Jim Oliver, says, "We expect the Supreme Court’s decision will bring finality to the legal issues that have precluded us from addressing regional water needs due to the growing population in the Metroplex."

Here's our original Morning Edition story about this Red River rivalry.  It’s not about the football game; it’s about Oklahoma water North Texas wants to buy.

This is a rivalry that began with an agreement signed by Congress in 1980. That agreement, the Red River Compact, gives four states -- Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana -- equal portions of water from the Red River and its tributaries.

Six years ago, the Tarrant Regional Water District sued, claiming it has the right to take some of Texas’ share from the tributaries in Oklahoma before they empty into the river. The Red River is filled with salty minerals that make using its water more expensive.

“If this water is going to run into the Red River, if that’s the whole issue, if it’s going to run into the  Red River why can’t we capture it before it ends up with all the minerals and pollutants it ends up with in the river,” said Jim Lane, a member of the board that governs the Tarrant water district.

Oklahoma has won several lower court decisions claiming it has the right to refuse to sell to out-of-state customers.

In November, the U.S. solicitor general shifted the dynamic when he recommended the justices hear this case because of the “practical impact” it will have on water planning in a “major urban area of Texas.”

Water district staff and attorneys declined to comment until the Justices make their announcement Friday. But in an interview last spring, Timothy Bishop, a lawyer working for the water district, said numerous water supplies across the country are regulated by similar interstate agreements. So the ripple effects of this decision could flow well beyond the Red River.

“If this sort of ruling were allowed to stand it would encourage upstream states throughout the country to impose these sorts of Draconian laws that try to cut back on their obligations that they’ve reached under compacts,” said Bishop. “That incentive is only going to increase as water becomes more scarce.”

The Supreme Court will hear the case in March or April.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.