OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A federal judge has been ordered to take another look at a case involving whether the city of McAlester may provide water service to customers claimed by an adjacent rural water district.
In a 3-0 ruling Tuesday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver decided that Pittsburg Water District 7 is partly protected from encroachment and competition by McAlester.
The decision sends the case back to the U.S. District Judge Michael Burrage of Muskogee to determine the extent of protection for the district.
His future ruling may determine whether some of the disputed customers, primarily those in an industrial park, may be served by the city and whether others may be served by the water district.
Under federal law, water districts are entitled to protection during the times they were in debt to the federal government for loans they received, the appellate judges said.
However, they said the protection from competition applies only if districts can serve customers "within a reasonable time."
Some of the disputed customers began receiving city water when the district was indebted to the federal government. Others began receiving the water when the district wasn't indebted.
The appeals court said Burrage would have to sort out those facts before deciding which customers, such as Edison Plastics and the county's fairgrounds-exposition center, can be served by thec ity and which by the district.
The district sued McAlester in 1997 because the city had begun providing water service to the customers within the district's boundaries.
The appellate judges said Burrage's rulings in favor of the city were wrong for two reasons: He failed to recognize any protection for the district for periods when it was in debt, and he applied the wrong standard to determine whether the district had made service available.
The judges said the protection provided by federal law is meant to encourage rural water development and to provide the federal government greater security for repayment of its loans.