Whatever happens in Oklahoma, stays in Oklahoma. And when it comes to water rights, the nation’s high court told Texas that Oklahoma doesn’t have to share.
Writing for a unanimous decision, Justice Sotomayor took about thirty pages to review the case and put to rest any claims Texas thought it had on Oklahoma water. Noting that the Red River Compact was silent concerning cross-border rights that Tarrant County claimed was part of the Compact, the Court immediately proceeded to “the background notion that a State does not easily cede its sovereignty”. As part of this notion, the States have “absolute right to all their navigable waters and the soils under them for their own common use.” Martin v. Lessee of Waddell, 16 Pet. 367, 410 (1842).
Sotomayor then noted that “‘[a] court deciding a question of title to [a] bed of navigable water [within a State’s boundaries] must . . . begin with a strong presumption’ against defeat of a State’s title.” Id., at 34 (quoting Montana v. United States, 450 U. S. 544, 552 (1981)). Noting there was silence in the Compact instead of some mechanism to provide a claim against a sovereign state’s title, the justice stated the Tarrant County claim had no merit.
The Court also noted that Tarrant County chose an odd course of conduct in the course of the case. Observing that Tarrant attempted to purchase water from Oklahoma from 2000 until 2002, the court found it “a strange offer if Tarrant believed it was entitled to demand such water without payment under the Compact.” Despite Tarrant County’s argument about compelling business reasons, the Court replied “We are unpersuaded.”
Weighing in on the ruling, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and the Oklahoma Governor’s Office had a few opinions of their own.
“Obviously, today’s unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is vindication for Oklahoma and the two neighboring Red River Compact states who joined with us to hold Texas accountable to the promises and provisions of our 33-year-old Compact agreement. It’s also a victory for the seven mostly arid western states who sided with Oklahoma and stood to lose at least as much control over their limited surface water supplies. Most importantly, though, this decision is a resounding victory for the citizens of Oklahoma and our ability to manage their water for their benefit. While the elegant defense of our position by Oklahoma’s legal team spawned considerable optimism, it’s a relief that the high court has reaffirmed our interpretation of long-settled agreements over the apportionment of interstate waters. After many years of legal maneuvering and saber-rattling, this should end, once and for all, Tarrant’s attempts to circumvent Oklahoma’s water management authority.” – J.D. Strong, Executive Director, Oklahoma Water Resources Board
“Today’s ruling is great news for the state of Oklahoma and yet another victory in the effort to protect our state’s water resources. We’ve maintained all along that Oklahoma must have the ability to set its own water policy and today’s unanimous Supreme Court decision solidifies that position. My congratulations go out to Attorney General Scott Pruitt and his office for their great work in this case on behalf of the state.” – Governor Mary Fallin