Confusion and Conflict in Boundary Law: A Recent Case along the Coast
An article in The American Surveyor by Michael J. Pallamary highlights a recent case where the author states that the US Supreme Court has recently introduced confusion and conflict in boundary law. The intention of the law, it was hoped, would settle a decades-old dispute over the location of California’s offshore boundary, a line common with the United States’ boundary in that part of the world. The conflict stemmed from 1946 when the federal government sued California for leasing land for oil drilling offshore from Long Beach. The federal government stated that the submerged lands belonged to the federal government and not the state. The location of the state boundary is apparently three geographical miles distant from its coastline.
Any geographer or GIS analyst must see the “red flags” fly when they read “coastline” as the basis for any boundary, realizing that coastlines change, sea levels change, the definition of the coastline itself means different things to different people, and, remember the good ol’ coastline paradox? Scale matters! The author, a 50 year professional surveyor who knows what he is talking about, gets right to the point: The notion of “absolute certainty” in the recent law and prior laws “appears to be derived from the misunderstood notion of significant figures and little to no understanding of geodesy.” He goes on to state that one organization in California still uses nautical miles and most other agencies use geographical miles, and points out the differences between low water, ordinary low water, mean low water, lower low water, mean high water, and well, you get the idea. He also states that the coordinate values in the law are expressed as both NAD 83 and WGS 84 UTM, when it is well known that these are not the same, and moreover, they are in an “endless state of flux.”
Why does all this matter? The locations of boundaries are of critical concern to our 21st Century world. In terms of coastal boundaries, yes, energy extraction remains important as it was during the 1940s, but think of additional issues: Measuring and assessing property and boundaries of all sorts along coasts, zoning, natural resource protection, shipping, defense and security, responsibilities for emergency management, and a whole host of other coastal and national concerns.
I couldn’t help but sigh and scratch my head upon reading the complexities detailed in this article. It provides a good update to our discussion in our book about the intricacies of boundaries, about the importance of datums, about precision and accuracy, and about knowing what you are doing when you are working in the field of geotechnologies. In talking with the author, I understand that a petition has been filed, asking that the legislation be redone. That is good news, but I wonder in how many other cases around the world are boundary related laws passed without consulting the surveying and geodesy community. Maybe I don’t want to know the answer! So, until we get our ideal world, I think it is important for all of us in the geospatial community to keep promoting why what you are doing is important to our 21st Century world. It is my hope that your work will be visible so that you will be called upon from time to time by decision makers at all levels to advise them on legislation that affects us all.