Oklahoma and Texas seek solution to Red River water dispute
A mapping mistake and the rise of an invasive species in Lake Texoma has elevated a boundary dispute between Oklahoma and Texas into a novel question for water and property rights experts.
Unlike the Red River bridge dispute almost a century ago that led to then-Oklahoma Gov. William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray calling out the National Guard, this disagreement will likely end on quieter terms.
The Oklahoma Red River Boundary Commission met Thursday for the first time in years to hear a proposed solution by Texas water authorities over a single pumping station lying a few feet on the Oklahoma side of the Red River in Lake Texoma. Texas officials proposed swapping parts of the border to put the pumping station fully on the Texas side.
Commission members decided to study the issue further and directed University of Oklahoma President Joseph Harroz Jr. to come up with a panel of experts to advise the commission.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said the issue was multifaceted and any solution would have to be fair to Oklahoma. In most other disputes, compensation might be the preferred solution. But current state law forbids the sale of water to other states.
“We want to make sure nothing pierces the veil of interstate water sales,” McCall said in an interview after the meeting.
The Border Dispute
The border in that area is delineated as the southern vegetation line of the Red River, the 1,360-mile long river that starts in New Mexico and flows into the Mississippi River in Louisiana. But when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created Lake Texoma as a flood-control lake by damming parts of the river in 1944, that border has become murky at times.
The pumping station, operated by the North Texas Municipal Water District, was completed in 1989 and provides water to Sherman, Denison and 40 other cities in north Texas. It’s part of a network of 20 pumping stations operated by the water district that serves 2 million residents.
“The topic before you all today is about a property matter that impacts our ability to have secure and reliable access to our existing water supplies in Lake Texoma,” Jenna Covington, executive director and general manager of the North Texas Municipal Water District, told commission members.
The border dispute over the pump station started in August 2009 after zebra mussels were discovered in Lake Texoma. The invasive species led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take a closer look at the boundary. They found the wrong map and survey was used when the pump station was built and the U.S. Corps of Engineers granted an easement to the water district.
Zebra mussels consume large amounts of plankton, putting entire lake or river ecosystems at risk. Boaters can unwittingly transport the zebra mussels to other water bodies.
It’s illegal under federal law to transport invasive species across state lines, which added another wrinkle to the Lake Texoma pump station saga. Congress gave the North Texas Municipal Water District a temporary exemption from the Lacey Act so it could continue pumping water.
“This exemption required full enclosure of the water all the way to our water treatment plant located in Wiley, Texas, where zebra mussels are removed,” Covington said.
The water district has continued to pump water from the lake under a 2014 memorandum of understanding between former Govs. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Rick Perry of Texas. Both states created Red River Boundary Commissions to find long-term solutions.
The North Texas Municipal Water District is permitted to take up to 197,000 acre feet of water from that pumping station each year, Covington said. The annual volume peaked in 2019 at 122,865 acre feet. That pumping station serves about 219,000 people in North Texas.
What Texas Wants
Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and the University of Oklahoma President Joseph Harroz Jr. chat before the first meeting of a reconstituted Red River Boundary Commission on Thursday, April 13, 2023, at the Oklahoma Capitol. (Paul Monies/Oklahoma Watch)
Covington and Texas water officials want Oklahoma and Texas to swap equal slivers of their parts of the border to put the pumping station on the Texas side. That would require approval of both states’ boundary commissions. It would be an amendment to the 2000 compact governing the Red River boundary. Structuring it that way would not need congressional approval.
“That would negate any effects the boundary currently has on the pump station in such a way as there’s no net loss of property between the states so that neither increases or decreases in political power,” David Kelly, the North Texas water district’s governmental affairs and special projects manager, told the Oklahoma commission.
It would take several years and at least $50 million to build a new pumping station that is fully on the Texas side of the border, Covington said. That doesn’t include additional time and other costs to build a pipeline to any new pumping station.
While the Oklahoma Red River Boundary Commission took no action on the Texas proposal on Thursday, Harroz joked that any resolution would have to involve Texas spotting some points in the next OU-Texas football game.
“It’s obviously a novel issue. It would make for a terrific question in law school,” said Harroz, who previously served as dean of the OU College of Law. “I think on issues this specific around water law, property law, the unique interstate component, the federal component, it would not just be OU. We need to bring outside experts from the private sector as well.”
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.
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