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Supreme Court justices tackle Texas-Oklahoma water fight

People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supreme Court justices on Tuesday wrestled with the sensitive issue of whether a thirsty Texas water district has the right to access water across the Oklahoma state line.

The case arose under the Red River Compact, an agreement between Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma that apportioned water within the Red River basin. The compact was approved by Congress in 1980.

The Tarrant Regional Water District, which provides water in the fast-growing Dallas-Forth Worth area, would like to access water in Oklahoma, but the Oklahoma Water Resources Board has refused. Oklahoma law restricts allocations of water out of state.

Texas as a whole has been facing a major drought.

Under the compact, the states have equal rights to water in the area in question - in a basin that straddles the Texas-Oklahoma border - but the water district and Oklahoma disagree over what exactly that means. The water district says it means Texas can seek access to 25 percent of the water in question, irrespective of the state line, as stated in the compact. Oklahoma disputes that interpretation.

The Obama administration intervened in the case in support of the Texas water district.

It was unclear based on Tuesday's hour-long oral argument how the court would rule, although several of the nine justices voiced concerns about the water district's argument.

One was Justice Samuel Alito, who told the water district's lawyer, Charles Rothfeld, that the image of Texas having the right to "go into Oklahoma" was troubling.

"I mean, it sounds like they are going to send in the National Guard or the Texas Rangers," Alito said.

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared more sympathetic to the water district, noting that the "whole point" of the compact is that the states all ceded some rights.

"Each state has to give up a little here or a little there to solve a problem," he said.

A decision is expected by the end of June.

The case is Tarrant Regional Water District v. Hermann, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-889.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)

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