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Supreme Court Wades Into Texas-Oklahoma Water War Today

There’s often been tension between Texas and Oklahoma. A dispute over the state boundary line dates back nearly 200 years.  And for more than a century Texas and OU football teams have clashed in the Red River Rivalry. Tuesday, the latest skirmish goes before the U.S. Supreme Court when the State of Oklahoma and the Tarrant Regional Water District in Fort Worth argue over water rights.

Ground zero in this dispute is just below Hugo Lake, Okla. And the fish are jumpin’.

"Right today I’m going to try to catch some catfish," Larry Burris says.  Caught some last night."

A healthy spring rain has filled the lake, so the Army Corp of Engineers has opened the flood gates at the dam, releasing a thunderous rush of water into the Kiamichi River.

Along the river banks anglers stand shoulder to shoulder.  Lynell Webster says it doesn’t get any better than this for the rod-and-reel crowd.

“This is what we’re catching here. Crappie. Fourteen- to 16- inch crappie,” he says. “They’re delicious.”

This is a way of life for Oklahoma natives like Webster, which is why he’s pretty hot about a Texas plan to buy some of the water rolling past his fishing hole.

“It’s going to take this away from us here," he says.  It’s going to drain that lake up there.  That lake was dry this past winter and we generally have water in it. But, no. That’s a no, no."

It’s true.  This past winter was unusually dry around Hugo.  But since 2008 Hugo has annually averaged 10 to 15 more inches of rain than its Texas neighbors in Fort Worth.

Which is why the Tarrant Regional Water District sees no problem with its plan to build a pump station in Oklahoma several miles downstream from the Lake Hugo dam. 

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA
Government Relations Director Linda Christie and Executive Director Jim Oliver with the Tarrant Regional Water District.

The Tarrant district would capture the clear, mountain water before it hits the Red River and mixes with salty minerals that are expensive to extract.  Then it would ship the water through a 125-mile pipeline to North Texas.

“We think that's our right under the Red River Compact to obtain that water, says Jim Oliver, the executive director of the Tarrant Regional Water District.

“Where there's a right, there's a remedy, and we should be able to get the water." 

Oliver says the water district is just trying to enforce the compact, an agreement between Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas approved by Congress in 1980. 

oklahoma water dispute SMU law prof Sarah Tran 4-23-13.mp3
How Supreme Court Justices interpret the Red River Compact could be a key factor in their decision. SMU Assistant Professor of Law Sarah Tran weighs in. Listen.

  The compact says that when the water in the Red River and its tributaries exceeds a certain level, each of the states is entitled to one fourth of the excess.

What the compact doesn’t explicitly say is whether you must withdraw that water within your own state.

Tarrant says it’s not possible to pump its full share from Texas.  So, in a lawsuit filed against Oklahoma, Tarrant claims the only way to fulfill the compact is for Texas entities to cross the state line and capture the water there.

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Oklahoma State Sen. Jerry Ellis campaigned against selling water to Texas.

Oklahoma State Sen. Jerry Ellis believes Texas would try to take more than its 25 percent.

“They’ll take more than their fair share.  It’s just human nature,” he said.

Sen. Ellis represents the southeastern corner of Oklahoma, which includes the Kiamichi basin.  The bumper sticker on his extended- cab pickup leaves no question where he stands.  It says “Don’t Sell Oklahoma Water.”

“I’ve always opposed selling water outside Oklahoma,” he says.  “This is just bad policy to let somebody come cross-border and the Red River compact certainly does not allow this to happen.  It does not allow another state to come into this state to take water.”

Sen. Ellis has done his best to keep Texas out.  In 2009 he co-wrote laws that forbid Oklahoma water from being exported beyond its boundaries unless the legislature gives consent, which isn’t likely to happen. 

Three lower courts have sided with Oklahoma, and at least seven states – many with their own compacts -- have filed amicus briefs supporting the state.

But the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to look again at what the Red River Compact guarantees and whether Oklahoma’s restrictions on exporting water are legal.

Jim Oliver with the Tarrant Regional Water District says North Texas has a lot riding on the decision.

“It is the cheapest source of water and the most abundant source of water that we can obtain,” he said. 

“If the area keeps growing as rapidly as it has and we don't do anything then that limits our growth.  It limits economic development.  You've got industry that aren't going to move here.”

Other water districts in North Texas are supporting Tarrant’s lawsuit.  So is the City of Hugo and its former city manager, David Rawls.

Rawls says selling water to Texas could bring a new standard of living to one of the poorest parts of his state.

“It would produce new schools, new roads, it would produce new jobs,” he says. “Our lifestyle here is rural.  We enjoy it, but our children, once they finish high school, have to go somewhere else to work because there’s not a lot here,” he explained.

Sen. Ellis agrees. Water may be the key to improving southeastern Oklahoma’s economy. But he doesn’t think selling it to Texas is the answer.  Ellis has been talking to Oklahoma’s Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes about using the water at home.

“Growth will go where the water goes.  We will never have jobs here if you let the water get away.  That’s the key to growth,” said Ellis.   

“The tribes came to me in 2009 and said, you’re right, we want to develop the water right where it is and bring jobs to Southeastern, Oklahoma,” he said.

Below the dam, casting for catfish, Larry Burris isn’t much swayed by anyone’s argument for economic development.

“We sure need it, but we need the water, too.  If the water goes a lot of things will go.  No camping, no outside recreation at the lakes,” he says.

Burris is no doubt hoping some of the justices have baited a hook or two. So when they decide who can use this water, the wildness of the river is also protected.

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.