Friday, June 14, 2013

Supreme Court Rules On Out-Of-State Diversions Of Water

Jun 13: In the case of Tarrant Regional Water District. v. Herrmann, in the U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 11-889. Appealed from the U.S. Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit [See WIMS 9/27/11]. In this important, unanimous opinion for the High Court, involving out-of-state diversions of water, the Justices indicate that, "The Red River Compact, (or Compact), 94 Stat. 3305, allocates water rights among the States within the Red River basin as it winds through Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Petitioner Tarrant Regional Water District (Tarrant), a Texas agency, claims that it is entitled to acquire water under the Compact from within Oklahoma and that therefore the Compact preempts several Oklahoma statutes that restrict out-of-state diversions of water. In the alternative, Tarrant argues that the Oklahoma laws are unconstitutional restrictions on interstate commerce. We hold that Tarrant's claims lack merit.    

    The High Court points out that absent an agreement among the States, disputes over the allocation of water are subject to equitable apportionment by the courts, Arizona v. California, 460 U. S. 605, 609 (1983), which often results in protracted and costly legal proceedings. In 1955, to forestall future disputes over the River and its water, Congress authorized the States of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas to negotiate a compact to apportion the water of the Red River basin among themselves. The negotiations lasted over 20 years and finally culminated in the signing of the Red River Compact in 1978. Congress approved the Compact in 1980, transforming it into federal law.

    At issue in this case are rights under the Compact to water located in Oklahoma's portion of subbasin 5 of Reach II. Reach II posed the greatest difficulty to the parties' efforts to reach agreement. The problem was that Louisiana, the farthest downstream State, lacks suitable reservoir sites and therefore cannot store water during high flow periods to meet its future needs. The upstream States (Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas), which control the River's flow, were unwilling to release water stored within their own reservoirs for the benefit of any downstream States, like Louisiana. Without any such release, there would be no guaranteed flow of water to Louisiana.
    The provisions of the Compact relating to Reach II were crafted to address this problem. Subbasins 1-4 ended in last downstream major damsites controlled by the individual states. Subbasin 5, instead required that water be allowed to flow to Louisiana through the main stem of the River at certain minimum levels, assuring Louisiana an allocation of the River's waters and solving its flow-through problem.
    The provision of the Compact central to the present dispute is §5.05(b)(1), which sets the following allocation during times of normal flow: "(1) The Signatory States shall have equal rights to the use of runoff originating in subbasin 5 and undesignated water flowing into subbasin 5, so long as the flow of the Red River at the Arkansas-Louisiana state boundary is 3,000 cubic feet per second [hereinafter CFS] or more, provided no state is entitled to more than 25 percent of the water in excess of 3,000 [CFS]."
    Tarrant proposed to divert the Kiamichi River, at a point located in subbasin 5 of Reach II, before it discharges into the Red River and applied to Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB, the respondent in this case) for a permit. Tarrant knew, however, that Oklahoma would likely deny its permits because various state laws (collectively, the Oklahoma water statutes) effectively prevent out-of-state applicants from taking or diverting water from within Oklahoma's borders.
    When Tarrant filed its permit application, it also filed suit against respondents in Federal District Court. Tarrant sought to enjoin enforcement of the Oklahoma water statutes by the OWRB. Tarrant argued that the statutes, and the interpretation of them adopted by Oklahoma's attorney general, were preempted by Federal law and violated the Commerce Clause by discriminating against interstate commerce in water.
    The District Court granted summary judgment for the OWRB on both of Tarrant's claims. The Tenth Circuit affirmed. 656 F. 3d 1222, 1250 (2011). The Supreme Court, in its current opinion now affirms the judgment of the Tenth Circuit. The High Court rules, "The Red River Compact does not preempt Oklahoma's water statutes because the Compact creates no cross-border rights in its signatories for these statutes to infringe. Nor do Oklahoma's laws run afoul of the Commerce Clause. We affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit."
    [Note: The decision supports the rights of states to protect their own water rights and could have important ramifications in existing and future water disputes over Great Lakes water use and out-of-state diversions]. In fact, a number of states concerned about protecting their water rights via various compacts, particularly against Commerce Clause claims, filed an amicus brief in support of OWRB. The states included: CO, ID, IN, MI, NV, NM, and UT.
    Access the complete opinion (click here). Access the Supreme Court docket (click here). Access the merit and amicus briefs, including the one from the states above (click here). Access the complete Tenth Circuit opinion (click here). Access more information and analysis on the opinion from the SCOTUS blog (click here). [#Water, #GLakes]
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