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Davis Sets Calif.-Ariz. Land Swap in Motion

River: The changing course of the meandering Colorado requires adjustment of the border between the two states.


SACRAMENTO — No border is fixed if it's a river, and the Colorado River has outmaneuvered the bureaucracies of two states.

On Monday, Gov. Gray Davis cleared the way for human laws to catch up to natural laws by signing a bill--AB 2092 by Assemblyman David Kelley (R-Idyllwild)--that allows California to get back the nearly six square miles of its land that now lie in Arizona, thanks to the river's wanderings.

Arizona wants its land back, too. In May, Gov. Jane Dee Hull signed legislation that clears the way for Arizona to reclaim 10 square miles that now lie within California.

"We might as well get our lands in our state and let Arizona have their lands in their state," said Alan Hager, a California deputy attorney general.

The land at stake is dry riverbed known as "sovereign" land. Before 1963, California and Arizona drew their boundary down the center of the bed of the Colorado River, from roughly Bullhead City, Ariz., to Yuma, Ariz.

Over time, natural forces and the engineering works of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation drove the river to twist itself into and out of loops. It left behind old channels to which each state claims half.

"Eventually the landowners came to a position where they didn't know if their lands were in California or Arizona," said Jim Frey, an attorney with the California State Lands Commission.

In 1963, the states and Congress fixed a new boundary that would no longer shift with the river's course. But in agreeing to the new boundary, the states did not give up their claims on the dry, abandoned riverbed. So the old territory, which is owned by the people of Arizona and California at large, is scattered north and south of the official state border.

California and Arizona have been feuding over the water of the Colorado River since 1935, when Arizona sent a militia armed with machine guns to stop the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California from building a dam to divert water near Parker, Ariz.

But with land, not water, at stake, both states seem intent on an amiable consolidation.

"I think both states recognized that because of course changes in the river, because of how things have developed over time with respect to the river flow, we both needed to engage in some cleanup," said Nick Simonetta, spokesman for the Arizona State Land Department.

The land swap could take years as lawyers slice through the legal thicket of jurisdiction over navigable waterways. Rivers might at first glance seem to make simple, clear boundaries, but that's not necessarily so.

Texas and Oklahoma, for example, battled for decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1923 that Oklahoma's territory extended to the "gradient line" along the Red River's south bank. It took surveyors to delineate that line, which kept shifting. The "Texoma Area Boundary Agreement" was signed in 2000.

In California and Arizona, the little islands of alien territory along the old river course must be appraised before they can be swapped. "The great majority of it is rocky, sandy river-bottom-type land with typical Mojave scrub vegetation," Simonetta said. "There may be some potential for [agriculture] there ... but we don't have specifics on it."

What's really at stake, Hager said, is a bureaucratic imperative.

"Not that this is the greatest problem for the whole world," he said, "but for those who love symmetry ... it's easier to have your own sovereign lands in your own state rather than somewhere else."

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