Texas, Oklahoma Wrangling over Water

Feb. 1, 2007
Texas and Oklahoma are known for their legendary cross-border battles in the world of college football, but another type of battle kicked off in January.

By James Laughlin

Texas and Oklahoma are known for their legendary cross-border battles in the world of college football, but another type of battle kicked off in January. Over water. We got it and Texas wants it.

As an Oklahoma native and resident of Tulsa, it’s always amazed me how many people think of Oklahoma as a dry state one step above a desert. Oklahoma has an abundance of water, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the state. We’re also blessed with a relatively small and stable population.

North Texas, on the other hand, has a large and growing population, especially in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. While they’ve got a fair amount of water down there, water resource managers are planning for the future - an estimated 4.3 million people are expect to live in the region by 2060.

Over the years, Oklahoma officials have refused to send water to Texas despite a number of different proposals. In 2001, the Oklahoma Legislature blocked efforts by Texas officials to buy water from its reservoirs. And in 2002, lawmakers adopted a moratorium blocking most out-of-state water sales.

In January, the Tarrant Regional Water District filed suit in Federal Court, arguing that Oklahoma’s moratorium violates federal interstate commerce laws. Oddly, the suit was filed just two days after Tarrant and Oklahoma officials met in what was described as a cordial and productive meeting.

The district wants to capture water from three Oklahoma basins before it enters the Red River and takes on too much salt. The district would pump the water under the river, into a pipeline and eventually into one of its reservoirs. The first pipeline, tapping into Cache Creek near Lawton, OK, would stretch about 60 miles, flowing mostly down-hill to Lake Bridgeport in Wise County, TX. It could serve some of the fast-growing areas in northern Tarrant County.

In an article published in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Tarrent Regional Executive Director Jim Oliver said Texas only wants water that is flowing out of Oklahoma.

“Our biggest task is to let them know that they are not selling us anything that they are ever going to use,” Oliver was quoted. “By the time it gets to the point we’re going to take it, it’s gone. They can’t drink it. They can’t water-ski on it. They can’t fish in it.”

Oklahoma isn’t using the water now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t some day. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board is currently conducting a 50-year plan for managing the state’s water. That plan could include moving water from “wet” regions of the state to areas that need additional water. Once water starts flowing to Texas, it will be hard to turn off the tap if that water is needed some day by Oklahomans.

While this particular court battle is news in Oklahoma and Texas, it’s nothing new in the world of water. Similar battles over water have been waged for years between various states around the country, and among countries around the world. It has been said that water, more than oil, is likely to fuel wars of the future.

This battle is interesting to me primarily because of the Oklahoma/Texas angle. But I also found it striking that both Tarrent and Oklahoma are looking so far ahead in planning for water needs. Betting on growth 50 years into the future seems more like guess work than science to me. But one thing is sure, without an adequate supply of water that growth won’t happen.

James Laughlin, Editor

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