Supreme Court rejects Mississippi’s claim in water rights case

WASHINGTON — A unanimous Supreme Court on Monday rejected a claim that the Memphis area has been taking water that belongs to Mississippi from an underground aquifer that sits beneath parts of both states.

Information from Tennessee Attorney General’s Office shows Mississippi initiated the lawsuit against Tennessee, the City of Memphis, and Memphis Light, Gas & Water for damages related to the pumping of groundwater by the City of Memphis from the Middle Claiborne Aquifer, which lies beneath eight states.

The water dispute reaches back to 2005.

Mississippi was asking for over $600 million in damages in the suit.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court that the Supreme Court has long embraced the concept of a fair share in state fights over rivers and streams, a legal doctrine known as equitable apportionment.

Mississippi, though, “contends that it has sovereign ownership of all groundwater beneath its surface, so equitable apportionment ought not apply. We see things differently,” Roberts wrote.

Although the water source at issue in this case is water from hundreds of feet below the surface, Roberts wrote that “we see no basis for a different result.”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland released the following statement about the SCOTUS ruling.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on this water rights case is an historic and significant victory for Memphis.  After years of litigation and demands by Mississippi that we pay them millions of dollars for using water from the aquifer, it’s a relief that this matter is finally resolved.   It ensures that Memphians will continue to enjoy drinking water from the aquifer for generations to come.”

The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office also released a statement.

“Private lawyers in Mississippi started this water fight - claiming, in a rather novel theory, that its portion of an aquifer spanning eight states was an intrastate resource it owned exclusively.  And because it owned the water, Tennessee and the other defendants owed Mississippi over $600 million in damages for pumping water from the aquifer.  We appreciate the unanimous ruling from the Court.  We now have some finality. It’s a clear victory for Tennessee on all issues, and for all states who share underground water resources. We appreciate the countless hours invested in this case from attorneys in our Office and especially those we called upon with special expertise in this particular area of the law.” - Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III.

CLICK HERE to read the Court’s ruling.

The AP contributed to this story.