Supreme Court Ruling Seen as Victory for Interstate Compacts
By Crady deGolian, CSG Director of the National Center for Interstate Compacts
A unanimous ruling in June by the U.S. Supreme Court is being hailed as a significant victory for interstate compacts. In Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann, the court rejected the claims of the Tarrant Regional Water District to access water in Oklahoma based on the terms of the Red River Compact. The court ruled that under on the terms of the agreement Tarrant had no right to the water in question.
“The court’s decision reaffirms the contractual nature of interstate compacts,” said Rick Masters, who serves as special counsel to CSG’s National Center for Interstate Compacts. “The ruling validates that compacts are protected by the contract clause of the Constitution and will be enforced according to the express terms of each such agreement.”
At issue in the case was whether the Tarrant Regional Water District, located in Texas, could access water from the Red River in Oklahoma pursuant to the terms of the Red River Compact. Tarrant, which serves the Dallas-Fort Worth area, contended it has the right to access approximately 130 billion gallons of water from the Red River under the 1980 Red River Compact, which has been signed by Texas and Oklahoma, as well as Arkansas and Louisiana.
Oklahoma countered that the amount of water requested by Tarrant exceeds the minimum downstream amounts established by the terms of the compact.
Like nearly all water allocation compacts, the Red River Compact contains language stating, “nothing in the Compact shall interfere with or impair the right or power of any Signatory State to regulate within its boundaries the appropriation, use, and control of water, or quality of water, not inconsistent with its obligations under this Compact.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the ruling that three things showed the compact did not grant cross-border rights:
“the well-established principle that States do not easily cede their sovereign powers;
“the fact that other interstate water compacts have treated cross-border rights explicitly; and
“the parties’ course of dealing.”
Other water resource management compacts were watching the court’s ruling closely. In fact, the most common use of the compact mechanism is to manage shared natural resources such as water. Forty-four active interstate compacts are responsible for managing water resources, with 27 of those pertaining directly to the management of rivers or river basins.
Masters noted, however, that he did not think the ruling would significantly impact similar compacts.
“The court’s analysis makes clear that the compact language must explicitly provide for cross border access and such authority will not be implied,” he said. “In this instance, it was clear from the compact language the extent to which Tarrant was entitled to access water from the Red River.”
Masters concluded the Tarrant claim simply “exceeded what was permissible under the terms of the agreement.”
This case was also being watched closely for its impact on rapidly growing metro areas.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area, which has more than 6.5 million residents, is the fastest growing metro area in the country according to the 2011 Census. Engineers from the Tarrant Regional Water District estimate that north Texas, which includes the Dallas-Fort Worth area, must double its water supply by 2050. In fact, the Obama administration encouraged the Supreme Court to hear the case largely because of concerns over water shortages in rapidly growing areas.