When river systems cross state or national boundaries, it’s no surprise that tensions arise over water rights. Sometimes governments manage to work things out. Sometimes they don’t.
The news this year has brought an eruption of such frictions, both in the United States and abroad.
Texas complained this spring to the U.S. State Department that the Mexican government is failing to fulfill its obligation under a 1944 treaty to deliver water from tributaries that feed into the Rio Grande.
Meanwhile, Texas and New Mexico are gearing up for a possible legal skirmish involving New Mexico’s upstream obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.
Georgia and Alabama continue to wrangle over rights to the Tennessee River.
Internationally, Egypt has reacted angrily over Ethiopian plans to build a hydroelectric dam upstream on the Nile River. Egypt’s leaders say the dam would reduce their country’s water flows, and they have threatened military action.
In this country, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved a Great Plains river dispute just the other day.
That case involved a water district in north central Texas, which complained that Oklahoma was failing to live up to its obligations under a four-state water compact for the Red River. The Texas district argued that the compact gives it power to reach across the state line and demand to be sold 150 billion gallons of water from Red River tributaries in Oklahoma.
The Supreme Court said no, the district does not have such authority.
Does the ruling have direct relevance to Nebraska’s situation, specifically its compact with Kansas (as well as Colorado) governing the Republican River basin? It does, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office says.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, the AG’s office says, is in line with Nebraska’s interpretation of its interstate water agreements. That is, as long as state water regulations are consistent with the interstate pacts, one state’s regulations can’t be preempted by another state.
This points out the need for states to work conscientiously to fill in as many details as possible when they negotiate agreements with their neighbors over river use. Litigation over water issues can be tremendously expensive.
The American West is defined in great part by its aridity, and that underscores how important it is for states to work out sound, practical cross-boundary agreements on water use.
“That’s the key in the West, where water is normally a scarcity,” says David Cookson, Nebraska’s chief deputy attorney general, who has years of experience on water issues. “It’s important for states to protect the long-term sustainability of the resource.”
Nebraska, to its credit, now has in place a set of generally well-constructed laws and agreements governing river uses. That doesn’t mean all problems are solved, but it does mean the state now has sound tools to help address them.
Legislative Bill 962, a landmark measure that became law in 2004, set the state’s natural resources districts as the stewards of both underground water and surface water, with the state Department of Natural Resources providing supervision.
Meanwhile, Nebraska is using integrated management plans to address difficult water use issues, and Nebraska also has interstate compacts on river use.
Asked by The World-Herald about some of the main ingredients for achieving sound interstate river agreements, Cookson said, “The primary thing is folks coming to the table with the right mind-set. Obviously you can’t reach a solution if neither side is willing to negotiate. A state needs to be willing to reach a reasonable accommodation but still protect its long-term interests.”
Going to war over water disputes is alarming, and going to court over them is expensive. Far better to handle it through responsible negotiation.
Nebraska has the tools. It’s up to all parties to use those laws and agreements to preserve our water resources for the next generations.