OKLAHOMA CITY — The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider whether a North Texas water district should be allowed access to water supplies in southeastern Oklahoma — a case that could determine the extent to which Oklahoma can preserve the surface and stream water within its borders.
Tarrant Regional Water District filed a lawsuit in 2007 seeking to invalidate Oklahoma statutes that govern the appropriation and use of water within its boundaries and that North Texas communities say pose burdens to interstate commerce. The water district wants to transfer water flowing through southeastern Oklahoma to Fort Worth, Arlington and surrounding communities. Oral arguments are scheduled for April.
The lawsuit, filed against the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and the Oklahoma Water Conservation Storage Commission, challenges the constitutionality of a moratorium on out-of-state water sales approved by the Oklahoma Legislature. It also seeks injunctions to prevent the board from enforcing the regulations.
A federal judge in Oklahoma City dismissed the lawsuit, and a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld the ruling. It found that the Red River Compact, which governs usage of water in the basin that includes Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, insulates Oklahoma water statutes from interstate commerce challenges involving surface water subject to the compact.
Officials said the Supreme Court's review may clear up confusion about the right of one state to claim its share of waters of a shared river that flow through a neighboring state.
The district's general manager, Jim Oliver, said he was pleased the Supreme Court agreed to decide the case. The district asked it to take of the case in January 2012, and the court asked the federal government to weigh in on the matter in April.
"The Tarrant Regional Water District has worked for many years to resolve the legal questions concerning rights to water under the Red River Compact," Oliver said in a statement. He said the Supreme Court's decision "will bring finality to the legal issues" that have prevented the district from addressing the regional water needs of rapidly growing north Texas.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the state will continue its fight "to protect its natural resources."
The water district wants to purchase more than 460,000 acre-feet of water — about 150 billion gallons — from Oklahoma tributaries of the Red River that separates Oklahoma and Texas, including Cache Creek, Beaver Creek and the Kiamichi River.
District officials maintain that Oklahoma has more than 10 times the water it needs to meet its own needs and the district wants only about 6 percent of water flowing into the Red River — water that eventually flows into the Gulf of Mexico. They say drawing water directly from the river is not financially feasible because of salinity issues.
District officials have said it would pay between $15 million and $60 million a year to transport Oklahoma water to North Texas, money they say could be used to build reservoirs and pipelines to deliver water to parched western Oklahoma.
But attorneys for the state have maintained that the water issue should be decided by the Red River Compact Commission, which was created by Congress in 1980 to apportion water that flows along the Red River and its tributaries.
Legislation adopted by the Legislature in 2009 said no out-of-state water permit can prevent Oklahoma from meeting its obligations under interstate compacts with other states. It also requires the Water Resources Board to consider in-state water shortages or needs when considering applications for out-of-state water sales.