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Don't Miss. Your Water: State Loses Legal Claim to Area Groundwater

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A long-time legal battle over ownership of area groundwater concluded Monday, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the City of Memphis.

In a case dating back to 2005, the State of Mississippi argued that the City of Memphis’ water pumps -- located within Tennessee -- were siphoning water from across the state line.

Mississippi said it had legal rights to the water because it originated under its territory and was therefore entitled to $615 million in compensation for water already consumed.

But on Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld Memphis and the State of Tennessee’s argument that the water is sourced from the interstate Middle Claiborne Aquifer where water flows freely under both states, making it a shared resource.

David Bearman, a lawyer who represented the city’s interests in the case, welcomed the justices’ opinion.

“It’s also consistent with more than a century of Supreme Court precedent and charts a sound path for interstate water disputes going forward,” he said in a prepared statement.

Legal experts closely watched the fight because of its historic nature. It was the first groundwater conflict between states to make it to the Supreme Court.

In a 15-page ruling, the justices said the same principles governing interstate disputes over surface waters such as a river apply to groundwater.

This means that Mississippi could potentially bring a new suit asking the court to create a water sharing agreement under a doctrine known as equitable apportionment.

But it would be hard for Mississippi to prove some of the legal requirements to that end, says Robin Craig, a water law professor at the University of Southern California.

“There’s no factual record of Mississippi having wells dry up or not having the groundwater it needs available, and that’s what you’d have to show to show the kind of injury you’d need to get the equitable apportionment,” she says.

For now, at least, Mississippi has not indicated it will take further action.

“We respect the decision of the Court,” a spokesperson for the Mississippi Attorney General said.

The case was the first on the Supreme Court’s docket this term and the first to receive a ruling.