Mississippi, Tennessee bring water fight to the Supreme Court

Published: Oct. 1, 2021 at 10:47 AM CDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - The Supreme Court is back in session and a dispute over Mississippi groundwater is headlining the first day. With justices hearing arguments in-person for the first time since the pandemic began, they will hear Mississippi v. Tennessee first.

The case boils down to a battle over groundwater between the neighboring states. In 2014 Mississippi filed a complaint saying a City of Memphis pumping operation took 252 billion gallons of Mississippi groundwater. The case shot up through the legal system, trickling all the way to the nation’s high court.

“Mississippi is complaining that Tennessee’s use of the groundwater is somehow affecting Mississippi and taking something away from Mississippi,” said Noah Hall, a water law expert from Wayne State University who is involved in the case.

He says Mississippi believes it is owed hundreds of millions of dollars because of Tennessee’s groundwater use. Hall says this is the first time a dispute like this is coming before the Supreme Court with one state arguing that it owns the groundwater in its boundary, despite the aquifer in question spanning across several states.

“This has never been the case in American law, whether you’re talking about a lake, a river, groundwater...natural resources are not owned by the state,” said Hall.

Hall says he expects the nine justices to question both sides as to whether groundwater should be considered different from other natural resources that are not considered state property. He argues there are significant ramifications if groundwater is treated differently, and that ruling in favor of Mississippi could potentially allow them to profit from it.

“Would the state be able to sell its water to close a budget deficit in any given year? What are the terms and conditions of a state selling its water? I expect it frankly to be a fun, interesting, genuine legal discussion,” said Hall.

Oral arguments will begin here at the Supreme Court Monday morning at 10 a.m. ET.

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