Great Lakes Advisory Board Named
World Resources Institute: Aqueduct Maps Water Risks

U.S. Water Stress Disputes

Grayson_Lynn_COLORBy E. Lynn Grayson


World Water Day 2013 draws attention and focus on issues around the world associated with water stress, water security and water scarcity. It is easy for many of us in areas where water is plentiful and readily available to believe that these concerns relate to others or are problems facing those living in other countries or on different continents. A closer look shows that there is growing evidence that water stress exists in the U.S. today and that these concerns may grow in significance into the future. A brief review of 2013 news stories confirms that water scarcity also is becoming a more common topic in ongoing litigation and regulatory proceedings. Below are brief summaries that highlight water rights disputes ongoing now arising from water scarcity situations: 

Arizona Water Dispute: The Arizona Department of Water Resources recently approved a 7,000 new home development plan in Sierra Vista, Arizona which would allow 3,000 acre-feet of water a year to be pumped from the last big, free flowing river in the Southwest – the San Pedro. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, along with local landowners and environmental groups, have appealed the decision arguing that the new pumping would intercept water that otherwise would flow to replenish the San Pedro River and the surrounding 57,000 acre San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. At issue are the water rights of local landowners as well as "reserved water rights" that entitle the federal government to "sufficient" water to serve areas including military bases, Indian reservations and national parks. Two cases are pending addressing an appeal of the State's approval of the development plan and water allocation matters.

Great Lakes' Water Levels: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported in January, 2013 that the water level in the Great Lakes is the lowest it has been since modern record-keeping began in 1918. Many concerned with these record setting water levels want the U.S. and Canadian governments to take action. Such action is focused, in part, on dredging activities in the St. Clair River which is the main outflow for the lakes. Dredging is responsible for some of the lowering of water levels along with warm and dry weather and overall changing weather patterns. The International Joint Commission, a binational body that oversees U.S. – Canadian boundary water issues, is reviewing thousands of public comments received after the release of a study about water levels in the Great Lakes. Recommendations from the Commission are anticipated in Q1 2013.

Texas – Oklahoma Water Dispute: The Tarrant Regional Water District is a large water supply agency serving north-central Texas. Tarrant wants to purchase water from Oklahoma to help meet its supply needs and now is engaged in a long standing water war between Texas and Oklahoma over allocation of the Red River. Tarrant filed a petition for certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on this dispute involving interesting Commerce Clause and interstate water compact implications. In January 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Tarrant's lawsuit against Oklahoma over control of the water that flows from several of its river basins into the Red River.

Mississippi River Levels Threaten Barge Traffic: 2012 drought conditions are blamed for low water levels in the Mississippi River watershed that threatens to close a portion of the river between St. Louis, MO and Cairo, IL. As the river drops, barge tows are threatened with running aground on bedrock formations in the shipping channel. One complicating factor in managing levels in the Mississippi River is management of flows from the Missouri River. Whether or not increased flows can be contributed by the Missouri River will depend upon the snowpack in the mountains and the Dakotas, where the headwaters of the Missouri originate. According to the National Climate Data Center, the lack of precipitation throughout much of the country has brought about drought conditions that are the worst since the 1950s. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is "cautiously optimistic" that the river will remain open to barge traffic.

Each of the news items above were identified in daily national or local newspapers and not through a review of legal publications or court dockets. Water-related news is more and more common often appearing in our local newspapers.