Supreme Court sides with Tennessee in water rights standoff with Mississippi

The U.S. Supreme Court building is reflected on wet marble as rulings are expected in Washington, U.S. November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
  • Mississippi accused Memphis of stealing its water
  • Court held underground water resources subject to 'equitable apportionment'

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected claims by the state of Mississippi that Memphis, Tennessee has illegally "siphoned" its groundwater for decades by pumping it from wells located outside the Mississippi border.

In a unanimous decision, the high court shot down Mississippi's argument that Memphis is stealing its water, holding that water both states draw from the Middle Claiborne Aquifer is subject to a doctrine known as equitable apportionment that has previously been applied to the sharing of surface waters.

The ruling ends Mississippi's bid to obtain $615 million in damages.

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Mississippi moved to sue Tennessee and Memphis in 2014. It maintained that Memphis had been pumping water subject to Mississippi's sovereign ownership from the Middle Claiborne Aquifer, which spans eight states including Mississippi and Tennessee.

Although Memphis' wells do not cross the border between the states, Mississippi argued that the utility's pumping caused water located beneath its territory to be pulled into Tennessee. Mississippi said it had lost, as a result, more than 400 billion gallons of groundwater between 1965 and 2016.

In Monday's ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that while some of the aquifer falls under Mississippi's jurisdiction, the water it contains is not owned exclusively by the state, as it contends. Rather, the "flowing interstate waters" are subject to the equitable apportionment doctrine, which applies to the allocation of shared water resources between two or more states, the judge wrote.

Roberts said the case marked the first time the Supreme Court has held that an interstate aquifer is subject to the doctrine. It had previously been applied to cases involving surface water like rivers and streams.

Susannah Williams, a spokesperson with the Office of the Mississippi Attorney General, said that her office "respect(s) the decision of the Court."

David Frederick, a lawyer representing Tennessee, said that the court had "upheld the important principle that States share interstate water resources, even if they are underground."

The Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division pumps about 120 million gallons of groundwater from the Middle Claiborne Aquifer each day, using more than 160 wells located in and around Memphis.

Simulations conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey have found that water levels in large swathes of the Middle Claiborne Aquifer could decline substantially by 2038, largely due to water being pumped at unsustainable rates.

The case is Mississippi v. Tennessee, City of Memphis, Tennessee, and Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 22O143.

For Mississippi: John Coghlan with the Office of the Attorney General of Mississippi; and Michael Ellingburg of the Ellingburg Law Firm

For Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division: Cheryl Patterson with the Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division

For Tennessee: David Frederick of Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick; and Sohnia Hong with the Office of the Tennessee Attorney General

For Tennessee, City of Memphis, and Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division: David Bearman of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz

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Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo

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