Calming the West’s water wars

Los Angeles Times

Last week, Texas and Oklahoma squared off in a Supreme Court battle over water rights that has the drought-ridden West on edge. At issue is a state’s control over its own water: Texas seeks to buy or otherwise tap water from Oklahoma under the terms of an interstate water compact, actions that Oklahoma has so far refused to permit despite the compact.

The stakes of the court’s decision are high. Interstate water agreements provide the legal foundation for the economies of most Western states, which are disproportionately dependent on irrigated agriculture. But the Texas-Oklahoma squabble is merely the latest in a string of interstate water disputes nearly as old as the settlement of the American West. Now as in the past, demand for water in the arid West far outstrips supply, and the outdated compact system for determining who gets how much water risks leaving the region high and dry.

America’s founders did not anticipate living in the desert. The Constitution’s primary mechanism for dividing shared water resources among states — the interstate compact — has proved inadequate to deal with situations in which water is extremely scarce. For one thing, most compacts lack credible means of enforcement, and monitoring water use is both expensive and difficult for cash-strapped states. Moreover, many compacts assign each state a specific quantity of water rather than a percentage, meaning that in times of drought, each state can reasonably claim to have been denied its fair share of water. Far from settling matters, most interstate water compacts lead only to long-running legal and administrative battles.

In the case of Texas and Oklahoma, what’s at issue is whether an Oklahoma law barring the transfer or sale of water to another state is at odds with the Red River Compact, which divvies up water among Texas, Oklahoma and their neighbors. Texas has another battle looming with New Mexico, which it says is pumping more than its fair share of Rio Grande water.

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