News Feature | November 29, 2021

Supreme Court Sends Message About Interstate Water Battles In Latest Ruling

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga


An interstate battle over increasingly stressed source water supplies in the U.S. has ended with a final ruling from the nation’s highest court.

“A unanimous Supreme Court … rejected a claim that the Memphis, Tennessee, area has been taking water that belongs to Mississippi from an underground aquifer that sits beneath parts of both states,” the Associated Press reported.

The origins of the case go back to 2005 and this recent ruling reinforces a stance that water systems throughout the country should be coming to expect from the Supreme Court — that states should each get a fair share of water sources, a distribution model known legally as “equitable apportionment.”

“Mississippi, though, ‘contends that it has sovereign ownership of all groundwater beneath its surface, so equitable apportionment ought not apply,’” per AP. “Although the water source at issue in this case is water from hundreds of feet below the surface, (Supreme Court Justice John) Roberts wrote that ‘we see no basis for a different result.’”

Though the ruling did uphold a philosophy that some have come to expect from the court, it will doubtlessly have an impact on ongoing legal disputes involving water rights, which are sure to continue as source water scarcity grows across the country.

“The unanimous ruling not only ended Mississippi and Tennessee’s long-running dispute, but also provided a framework for other legal battles that may emerge in the coming decades,” Time reported. “As the climate crisis intensifies and droughts worsen, particularly in the American West, groundwater will only become a more precious resource — and interstate groundwater disputes will likely become more common.”

Because the court denied Mississippi’s demand for hundreds of millions of dollars in the case, it might be sending a message to other would-be plaintiffs that interstate water wars are going to be difficult challenges to win.

“The high burden the Supreme Court set for proving injury in the case, might encourage states to negotiate amongst themselves to share aquifers, rather than immediately heading to court for damages,” according to Time.

To read more about how drought is impacting water systems across the country, visit Water Online’s Source Water Scarcity Solutions Center.