2016 Symposium – What’s at Stake in the Negotiation and Litigation of Interstate Water Compacts?

“CONFLICTS AND COOPERATION: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS”

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

WHAT’S AT STAKE IN THE NEGOTIATION AND LITIGATION OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS?

The final panel of the Symposium  reflected on all the concepts discussed throughout the day, and provided great insight for the future of interstate water compacts.

Professor Jason Robinson, of the University of Wyoming Law School, moderated the three-member panel through a series of pre-scripted questions and insightful answers from each of the panelists.  The panel included: David Robbins of Hill and Robbins, P.C.; Chad Wallace of the Office of the Colorado Attorney General; and Christine Klein of the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

Question 1: “Broadly speaking, what do you view as the most significant shortcomings in the processes by which existing interstate water compacts were negotiated?”

Klein, bringing her perspective from her current work in Florida, said that past compact negotiators “ignored the hard stuff,” and suggested that future negotiations should address those difficult issues while momentum driving the negotiations exists.  Wallace next observed that existing compacts did not “leave enough room” to address future water uses between the parties, such as groundwater use developments and hydrologic interactions.  Robbins concluded by reiterating Wallace’s observations.  He also addressed the fact that existing compacts do not generally include effective dispute resolution mechanisms or grievance processes.

Question 2: “How exactly have these shortcomings in the negotiations been detrimental to the composition and administration of existing compacts?”

Robbins answered first, continuing his line of thought from the last question.  He stated that sovereigns do not want to “give up sovereignty unless they do it intentionally and by their own control.”  With this understanding, Robbins argued that earlier compact negotiations failed to establish dispute resolution mechanisms because these mechanisms intrude on state sovereignty and are outside that state’s decision-making control.  Wallace agreed with Robbins and observed an unwillingness in party states to engage in dispute resolution in the face of ambiguities or unforeseen challenges in the compact’s administration.  Wallace reiterated the difficulties in finding mechanisms to address groundwater use on surface flow.

Klein furthered the conversation on dispute resolution mechanisms by using the Delaware River Basin Compact as an example: the commission implementing that compact has the authority to regulate withdrawal permits, rather than the states.  She then discussed the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes Compact that creates “common minimum standards” and some adjudicatory authority of the commission to address disputes.  Using these more recent compacts, Klein suggested that eastern states that do not have a history of, nor existing, compacts, can look to these unique approaches for problem-solving as they craft new compacts. For example, Klein suggested new compacts could be “tailored” to the “character and flavor and history of the states involved.”  Wallace again reminded the audience that compacts are voluntary concessions of state sovereignty, and those compacting states can engage in that process however best meets their needs.

Question 3: “What is the most important lesson you believe can be gleaned from interstate water compact litigation in the U.S. Supreme Court over the past two decades?”

Wallace joked that “the justices don’t really like to see us.”  He stressed that, because litigation can lead to rigid imposed apportionments, the threat of litigation is an effective tool to “get everyone’s attention” and bring stakeholders to the negotiating table.  Klein emphasized the importance of personalities and personal relationships in compact administration because “compacts are a marriage to death do us part.”  Robbins strongly agreed with Wallace’s previous observation that courts interpret compacts as contracts.  Robbins further argued that such interpretations cannot account for issues of state sovereignty.  Finally, Robbins reminded the audience that there is no “right answer” in interstate water compacts and that compacts are “about making a deal” between sovereigns.

Question 4: “Do you anticipate an increase or decrease in interstate water compact litigation in the future, and which factors do you consider most determinative?”

Wallace expressed optimism that compact administrators are learning to work collaboratively and “keep their options open.”  He referred back to his earlier point, that litigation will likely be a tool to induce negotiations between parties.  Robbins, without making an express prediction, remarked that “serious litigation” on a compact “only happens once; after that, you risk contempt [of court] for not complying” with the imposed judgment.

Question 5: “To what extent, if any, do you anticipate new interstate water compacts will be formed in the future, and which considerations underpin your prognosis?”

Klein addressed this question, discussing in detail her knowledge of current negotiations over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (“ACF”) system among Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.  Klein suggested that these states could “learn from the Western experience” because of the West’s robust history with compact negotiation and litigation.  Klein also suggested that the ACF states have the opportunity to negotiate a compact or equitable apportionment that can “fold in” contemporary concerns, such as the Endangered Species Act and groundwater use, that plague western compacts negotiated before these concerns arose.

Question 6: “How likely is it existing interstate water compacts will be amended or renegotiated in the future?  Which factors do you consider most significant to the initiation and success of such efforts?”

Wallace asserted that renegotiation of existing compacts “just won’t happen.”  Existing compacts, for their shortfalls, are a significant foundation for those resources; any negotiations or amendments would, Wallace posited, “fill in the gaps.”  Robbins then said that, from the perspective of state sovereignty, any renegotiation or significant amendment to existing compacts would require states to “give up something.”  The states would have to change their existing relationships vis-à-vis concessions of state sovereignty.  Robbins also discussed the ability of compact commissions to adopt regulations that govern the administration and implementation of the compacts, and he used the Rio Grande and the Arkansas as two examples of such commission regulations.  He suggested that retaining these existing mechanisms is both more likely and more preferable to complete renegotiation.  Wallace then reiterated the need for compact administrators to build trust and respectful personal relationships amongst themselves.  Robbins concluded the scripted questions with a reminder that, while not preferable, any negotiator must be ready and willing to litigate in the event that negotiations fail.

The floor then opened for audience questions.  One audience member posed a hypothetical question and asked if severe drought, similar to the drought in Australia, would force the renegotiation of the Colorado River Compact.  Robbins assured the audience that the Colorado River Compact addresses shortages, so renegotiation, even in the face of severe drought, would be unnecessary.  Wallace agreed, and further said that such an event would not force compact parties to allocate water differently because all would already be receiving less under the shortage allocations in the compact.

The next question from the audience inquired into the possibility of a compact specifically for the Ogallala Aquifer.  Robbins believed such a compact would be unlikely because of the very different uses of the aquifer by the three overlaying states, and because the Supreme Court decisions on the Republican and Arkansas litigation posited that existing compacts already address groundwater use.  Klein expressed similar skepticism, and described a case between Mississippi and Tennessee regarding different uses and contested ownership of a common aquifer.  Wallace then pointed to the Colorado Supreme Court case of In Re: the Application for Water Rights of Park County Sportsmen’s Ranch as an example of the inclusion of groundwater aquifers in existing compacts and use laws.

Robinson thanked the audience and the panel, and with the conclusion of this panel came the end of the 2016 Symposium.

Aubrey Bertram