In 1948’s film classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” an old prospector (John Huston) tells Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt: “Next time you fellas strike it rich, holler for me, will ya, before you start splashing water around. Water’s precious. Sometimes it can be more precious than gold.”
That’s a script written for North Texas where planners are prospecting for water to serve North Texas’ needs that are expected to double by 2060.
Water is fundamental to quality of life and expectations of companies looking to relocate or expand here, said David Berzina, Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce executive vice president of Economic Development. “If water begins to appear on the radar screen as an issue in terms of availability or quality, the economic viability of any community would be jeopardized.”
For example, he said, “data centers, which are high-capital investment projects, need water to cool down the wide array of computer systems they use in their facility.”
Supplying water for public and private sectors in 11 North Texas counties with nearly 2 million people is a challenge met by Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD).
The water district views the Kiamichi River in southeast Oklahoma as a practical future source of water, said Linda Christie, TRWD’s Government and Community Relations director. “Because of its proximity to our area, it is the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly option we have available to us.”
Kiamichi water flows into Hugo Lake then south to nearby Red River where it blends with extremely saline water that’s prohibitively expensive to treat, experts say. (See a map here.)
But TRWD’s efforts to access the Kiamichi and other water resources in Oklahoma have been stalled for years by Oklahoma’s Water Resources Board, protectionist legislation and Oklahoma-supportive rulings in federal court in the Western District of Oklahoma and the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Last year, TRWD took matters to the United States Supreme Court and was granted review of the 10th Circuit’s view that Oklahoma can withhold water from Texas.
The road to the Supreme Court began in 2004 when Oklahoma passed laws that TRWD viewed as negating the 1980 Red River Compact (RRC). Under that agreement, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana had equal claim (25 percent each, beyond a minimum flow) on the water in the Red River watershed between Denison Dam and the Louisiana border in areas not reserved for one state or another.
As Texas tributaries to the river do not account for Texas’ allocation, this meant that Texas would have to reach into another state such as Oklahoma to access its quota.
Central issues in Tarrant Regional Water District v Hermann, argued April 23, involve aspects of the Red River Compact and access to the Kiamichi. TRWD claims Oklahoma’s restrictive water-export laws are unconstitutional and violate the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause and the RRC.
The Supreme Court invited opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Solicitor General, which took issue with the 10th Circuit and urged the Supreme Court to focus on RRC issues.
The court’s decision should be announced around mid- to late June, according to Washington, D.C., attorney Erik Jaffe who handled filing of an amicus brief in support of TRWD for the Fort Worth and Dallas Regional chambers, GFW Real Estate Council and Dallas Citizens Council.
“Typically,” Christie said, “the justices overturn the lower court decision 65 to 70 percent of the time. Those statistics and the fact the U.S. Solicitor General wrote a brief supporting our position are very positive.”
If TRWD prevails, she said, permitting processes with Oklahoma will begin immediately.
The case has drawn keen interest among interstate compacts across the U.S., particularly in the West where water has been a volatile issue, resulting in negotiation of more than 24 compacts between 1920 and 1980. Presently nationwide, interstate agreements govern 38 river basins.
Officials are concerned that if Oklahoma prevails in TRWD v Hermann, states will have authority to enact protectionist water laws that would unravel compacts such as RRC, resulting in “water anarchy,” as observers envision.
In that situation, “Texas will need to find sources from farther away,” Jaffe said, creating “more expensive water for businesses and residents.”