The Texas-Oklahoma Red River Smackdown Foreshadows Water Fights To Come

The Red River, on the Texas-Oklahoma border. (Credit: WSJ/Justin Cozart)

Here’s a preview of the way climate change and human-driven global warming could upend our society, in the form of a recently decided Supreme Court case.

Over the last few years, a dispute between Texas and Oklahoma over the 35-year old Red River Compact has been winding its way through the court system. The compact — which also includes Arkansas and Louisiana — laid out that each state could take 25 percent of the excess water from a particular subbasin of the Red River. But Texas also asserted that it could withdraw water from parts of the subbasin lying under Oklahoma’s borders in order to claim its portion. Oklahoma objected, and a little over a week ago a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court ruled against the Lone Star State.

The content of the decision turned on technical questions at the intersection of legislative language and states’ rights. But for our purposes, the Texas-Oklahoma throwdown is a microcosm of the ever-more ferocious interstate conflict the country is in for as climate change makes fresh water harder to come by.

For Texas especially, it’s not hard to see the attempt to find an opening in the compact’s language to acquire more water as an act of mounting desperation. 95.2 percent of state currently ranges from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” — in May it was 98.6 percent, in September it was 90.9 percent, and last April it was 81.4 percent.

For Oklahoma, it’s 53.1 percent. Texas’ agriculture and beef production have both been hit hard by the water shortage — costing the state’s economy 115,000 jobs and $11.9 billion every year the drought drags on. On top of that, Texas lost more fresh water to the power sector — for cooling coal-powered plants, for steam to turn turbines, and other such uses — in 2011 than nearly any other state.

(Source: Union of Concerned Scientists/Energy and Water in a Warming World)

That both exacerbates Texas’ water shortage and threatens brownouts in the state is plants power back to avoid overheating. And while natural gas fracking accounts for little of the rapidly expanding use of fresh water by the energy industry globally, in Texas specifically its effect is acute. Each fracking job consumes between 2 million and 4 million gallons of water, and in Texas over half the water wells drilled to supply fracking projects were in high or extremely high water-stress areas. The Dallas/Ft. Worth area in particular falls at the confluence of the drought, fracking, and power consumption hammers, and is supplied by the Tarrant Regional Water District that drove forward the court case against Oklahoma.

There are approximately 23 other interstate water compacts similar to the Texas-Oklahoma arrangement. Most of them are located in the west, and thus overalp with the ongoing and historic drought that’s been hammering away for over a year in the midwest, and more than a few of them contain ambiguous language very similar to what sparked the debate between Texas and Oklahoma. The oncoming threat of climate change could very well mean these conditions will go from historic to the new norm in the next few decades.

As a matter of fact, Texas just allocated $5 million to gear up for another legal battle over water access with New Mexico, and that case as well may go all the way to the top. Welcome to the new normal.

2 Responses to The Texas-Oklahoma Red River Smackdown Foreshadows Water Fights To Come

  1. Joan Savage says:

    Even without SCOTUS input, the compact seems like it was built for conflict.

    Figuring how each state, located at a different section of river, is entitled to 25% of excess flow seems a bit nuts, anyway.

    Excess flow per basin would be counted at its mouth, where the Red River ends, if we were following hydrology language. So how would one backtrack to figure on how much would have gotten to the mouth, if the states hadn’t already taken some out?

    Is it reckoned for flow as it passes through the state? That would be consistent with the recent SCOTUS decision, but not make sense hydrologically, or the compact could say something else entirely.

    The SCOTUS decision refers to conditions when the Red River flow is 3,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) or more, “provided no state is entitled to more than 25 percent of the water in excess of 3,000 [CFS].”

    But where on the Red River is that measurement to be taken? Surely that vital bit of information is somewhere in the original compact.

    As it is, the USGS gauge for the Red River near Burkburnett TX (gauge no. 07308500) in the past year saw three brief blips over 1,000 CFS and nothing even close to 3,000 CFS.

    However, downstream at the USGS 07344370 Red River gauge at Spring Bank, AR, the flow is 7590 CFS today. Yet, for much of winter at that location the flow was below the 3,000 CFS.

    Go figure!

    Perhaps someone familiar with the compact can explain the practical part?

  2. Joan Savage says:

    My puzzlement didn’t even include wondering how the compact calculates ground water withdrawal by state, expressed as it is in excess of what seems to be surface water flow.

    The Red River Basin is by far the largest source of irrigation ground water used in Texas.