Throughout the American West, water, or the lack of it, has been a primary concern of citizens and government officials alike. Oklahoma's principal river systems, the Canadian, and Red, and the Arkansas, provide residents with life-giving liquid for crop irrigation, livestock watering, household use, industrial development, and recreation. These rivers rise in and flow through states to the west and north of Oklahoma, and although some of the water that reaches Oklahoma is used here, eventually more than 34 million acre-feet exits the state and flows downstream into Arkansas and Louisiana. Dam construction and lakes, irrigation projects, and urban development in adjacent states and in Oklahoma have continually stopped the free flow of water, creating interstate controversies over water rights. Under the twentieth-century interpretation of the U.S. Constitution's compact clause (Article 1, Section 10, Clause 3), states may, with the consent of Congress, form agreements to solve common problems, and in the twentieth century interstate compacts became a means of using negotiation, rather than lawsuits, to settle water-rights claims.
A serious drought from circa 1950 to 1958 made government leaders in Oklahoma and adjacent states realize that they had to share water and plan for its usage in order for all to survive. Gov. Johnston Murray impaneled a statewide engineering committee to study water resources in 1954–55, and the committee reported that interstate stream compacts were needed to resolve the issue. Gov. Raymond Gary campaigned for the establishment of a statewide independent board to plan and monitor water usage, and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board was established in 1957.
Oklahoma participates in four interstate stream agreements. Water compacts serve to regulate each state's usage. The water flowing in each stream is measured and apportioned to each state, with the goal of avoiding inequity. Each state maintains a storage and distribution plan. The compacts also promote water conservation, monitor and regulate pollution, and monitor commercial and urban development along each river.
The Canadian River (the North and "South" Canadian branches) flows through New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle before entering Oklahoma, and it flows into the Arkansas River. The state's first water pact came in 1926 when Oklahoma and New Mexico agreed to share proportionally the Canadian River's waters. Texas declined to participate. However, on December 6, 1950, the three states modified and approved the earlier compact, and water was reapportioned. The Oklahoma Legislature approved in 1951, Congress approved, and the president signed the agreement into law on May 19, 1952. The Canadian River Compact Commission, with representatives of the three states, administers the compact, in cooperation with the federal government.
The Arkansas River flows through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Those four states have rights to use the water. Oklahoma has water compacts with Kansas and Arkansas to apportion the waters of the Arkansas River basin, regulate pollution, and manage water resources (Kansas and Colorado signed a separate compact in 1949). The Kansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact was authorized in 1955 by Congress and approved in 1965 by the two states and by Congress in 1966. The rivers covered in this agreement are the Arkansas proper, the Salt Fork, the Cimarron, and the Grand. The compact is administered by the Kansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Commission. The Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact came in 1971 (revised in 1972). It covers the Arkansas proper in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas and is administered by the Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact Commission.
The Red River flows through the Texas Panhandle and through Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, discharging into the Mississippi River. Those four states have rights to the water. In 1955 Congress authorized the four to negotiate a compact. After a lengthy process the document was finally signed in 1978 and approved by the federal government. The Red River Compact Commission, composed of two members from each state, administers the agreement.
There are always complications in enforcing legal limitations on the quantity of surface water that a state can keep. For instance, in 1984 New Mexico expanded Ute Reservoir, on the upper Canadian River, and the states of Texas and Oklahoma sued on the basis that the Canadian River Compact limited the amount of stored water to that specified in the 1952 agreement. A federal court ordered New Mexico to release the water to the downstream states. Similarly, in 1991 Texas developed Palo Duro Reservoir, north of Stinnett, Texas, on Palo Duro Creek, a tributary of the Canadian. In 2001–02 the State of Oklahoma threatened suit against the State of Texas for violating the Canadian River Compact. The new reservoir was impounding billions of gallons of water that would ordinarily be allowed to flow eastward into Canton Lake, a major source of water for Oklahoma City. Like laws, water compacts are subject to interpretation.
Canadian River Compact Commission, "Oklahoma Commissioners' Report," August 28, 2002.
Hudson Davis, "Canadian River Compact," The New Handbook of Texas, ed. Ron Tyler (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1995).
Zachary L. McCormick, "The Use of Interstate Compacts to Resolve Transboundary Water Allocation Issues" (Ph.D. diss., Oklahoma State University, 1994).
"Oklahoma Long-Range Water Program," Report to the Governor and Legislature by the State-Wide Engineering Committee (December 1954).
Oklahoma Statutes, Title 82, Waters and Water Rights, Chapter 20, Arkansas River Basin Compact, Kansas-Oklahoma, 1965, Chapter 20A, Arkansas River Basin Compact, Arkansas-Oklahoma, 1970, Chapter 20B, Red River Compact, Arkansas-Louisiana-Oklahoma-Texas, 1978.
"Water Compacts," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dianna Everett, “Water Compacts,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=WA052.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.