Questions in the early 1990’s over the boundary between York County, S.C., and Gaston County, N.C., sparked the decision to reestablish the border. (Mark Clifton/WashuOtaku/flickr.)

It’s been more than two centuries since they became states, but it’s still not exactly clear where North Carolina ends and South Carolina begins.

The border between the two states was established through a handful of surveys and partial resurveys over the past 300 years, but it hasn’t aged well. Many of the carved trees and stone markers used to mark parts of the 334-mile-long boundary are long gone. Until this year, at least one 31-mile stretch hadn’t been resurveyed since it was first established in the mid-1730’s.

But any confusion could soon be resolved as long as both state legislatures approve a boundary agreed to by a joint commission — the culmination of an effort that began in 1995 and was completed this May.

“It’s the old line, but it’s very accurately located now with GPS so we know where it is within a tenth of a foot,” said Sid Miller, the South Carolinian co-chairman of the commission.

It may seem remarkable in the age of the smartphone that something as important as a boundary between two states still needs to be sorted out. But the Carolinas aren’t alone in the predicament. A portion of the Texas-Oklahoma border is in need of some clarifying, too, at least according to lawmakers on the Texas side.

In both cases, the confusion revolves around natural resources. In Texas, questions arose recently when the state couldn’t say for sure whether a set of water pumps in a shared lake was drawing from Oklahoma’s side of the border. And in the Carolinas, the need for border clarity arose when, in the mid-1990’s, both states were interested in buying land being sold along the border. The Texas-Oklahoma effort is just beginning, while Carolina’s is close to being finished.

Officials in the Carolinas have spent nearly two decades finding and interpreting old land grants and deeds, leading to the creation of 50 new maps, Miller said. The attorneys general in both states are working to create bills that, if passed, would approve the commission’s interpretation of the border. The process has been relatively amicable, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. At least a few dozen people along the border will find themselves calling a new state home.


Survey history of the Carolina boundary. (Credit: South Carolina Boundary Commission report for fiscal year 2012-13.)

One South Carolina gas station owner who also sells alcohol and fireworks faces a triple threat, Miller said. The reclassification would push him into a dry county in a state with stricter limits on fireworks sales and a gas tax that’s more than 20 cents higher. Residents along the border face other questions, too, such as how and when their tax filings will be affected and whether their children will qualify for in-state tuition rates for colleges in their former state of residence.

“That’s what we’re working on at this point,” said Emory Smith Jr., deputy solicitor general in the South Carolina Attorney General’s office. Residents most likely won’t be required to pay back taxes to their new states and there will probably be a generous policy granting in-state tuition to any child whose home switches sides, he said.

But aside from its limited — and albeit consequential — effect on those few residents, the Carolina border is close to officially being reestablished with two-centimeter precision, Miller said.

Earlier this year, the joint commission approved the last 91 miles of the reestablished border—along Horry County, S.C. and Columbus and Brunswick counties, N.C.; Dillon County, S.C. and Robeson County, N.C. and between “Corner Stone” (Marlboro County) southeast to the Marlboro-Dillon county boundary, S.C.

And Miller’s optimistic both state legislatures will approve the commission’s work within the next  year or two.

But while the Carolina border debate is winding down, the Texas-Oklahoma discussion is just beginning. It’s so new, in fact, that both states aren’t even involved yet. Texas passed a law this year to form a boundary commission to evaluate the border, but no one has officially reached out to Oklahoma yet.

“We have not received any type of guidance whatsoever from the state of Texas, no heads-up on any of this,” said Tyler Powell, deputy secretary of environment for the Office of the Secretary of Energy and Environment in Oklahoma. The state, he said, is looking into the matter, but officials in Oklahoma first heard about the Texas bill from a reporter at the Texas Tribune, which first reported about it two weeks ago.

The location of the jagged border between the states was thought to have been settled in 2000, when Congress accepted a plan approved by both state legislatures. That agreement defined the political boundary between Texas and Oklahoma “as the vegetation line on the south bank of the Red River,” which runs along the entirety of the border of both states except for one stretch where it enters and exits Lake Texoma, which is exactly where the problem lies.

“Basically what happened is there was a surveying error,” said Texas state Sen. Craig Estes, who co-sponsored the bill passed this year to create a Red River Boundary Commission.

When Congress approved the new border in 2000, it deferred to the compact between the states on how to define where the border lies in Lake Texoma. The issue, according to Estes and bill author Rep. Larry Phillips, is that mistakes were made in identifying where the border bisects Lake Texoma, and those mistakes need to be resolved for Texas to continue drawing water from the lake.

It’s unclear exactly what the consequence of continuing to use the pumps would be even if they were across the border, since both states have rights to the water in the lake, Oklahoma’s Powell said. But, as the Texas Tribune reported, a mussel infestation and the harsh penalties associated with knowingly transporting the species across state lines has kept Texas officials from running their pumps.

Estes said he’s confident that the two states can come to some sort of understanding and hopefully one that doesn’t take years to hash out.

“Things like this never move as fast as you think they might move, but we’re ready to get started here on the Texas side,” he said. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has until Dec. 1 to appoint members to the commission, which must hold its first meeting by the end of January.


Lake Texoma straddles the Oklahoma-Texas border. (Credit: Google Earth.)