Texas and Oklahoma May Redraw the Border, Again

An orange circle on the floor of a raw water pump station on Lake Texoma indicates the state line between Texas and Oklahoma.
An orange circle on the floor of a raw water pump station on Lake Texoma indicates the state line between Texas and Oklahoma.

LAKE TEXOMA — Inside a dimly lit water-pumping station that juts over choppy waters, Denise Hickey toes an imaginary line that has fueled real disputes over water, oil and property taxes, dating back to the Louisiana Purchase. 

“You’re in Texas, and I’m in Oklahoma,” said Hickey, a spokeswoman for the North Texas Municipal Water District, to a reporter standing five feet away. 

The boundary, marked by three orange circles painted on the concrete floor, passes through two of the largest water pumps. Four pumps sit squarely in Oklahoma, while one, a smaller structure resembling the Star Wars robot R2-D2, lies in Texas. So it is, and will always be across this vast reservoir along the Red River.

Or will it?

Thirteen years ago, Texas and Oklahoma thought they had redrawn their 540-mile border for the last time, ending nearly two centuries of squabbling that fueled two U.S. Supreme Court cases and spurred a revolver-toting Oklahoma governor to declare martial law and “invade,” as 1930s newspapers put it, a narrow strip of disputed territory. (No shots were fired.) Now, Texas is poised to reopen those discussions — if just a crack — after an episode involving a mollusk invasion, an idle water supply and a 74-year-old map that might be lost forever.

 

“The Texas-Oklahoma border has a unique and colorful history, and we may be living out another chapter of it,” said Andy Hogue, a spokesman for the Texas General Land Office.

Largely unnoticed, Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation in June that created a Red River Boundary Commission to study — and possibly redraw — the border along Lake Texoma, bringing the pump station fully into Texas and fixing an unintentional boundary error that has caused headaches for water managers. Perry’s appointments to the commission are due Dec. 1.

Changing the boundary would require Texas and Oklahoma lawmakers to agree on an interstate compact, which would then need congressional approval.

For its part, Oklahoma is aware of the issue and waiting for word from Texas. Steve Mullins, general counsel for Gov. Mary Fallin, said the Oklahoma Water Resources Board is “looking into it.” But a board representative says that the agency knows little about the situation and that Texas officials have not called.

In 2009, the North Texas Municipal Water District unwittingly stumbled into the border’s tangled history when Texas wildlife officials discovered a zebra mussel infestation in Lake Texoma. It was the first Texas sighting of the tiny invasive bivalve, which has wreaked havoc on underwater food chains throughout the nation and clogged power and water plants.

North Texas did not pump Texoma water as it studied the issue. It kept the pumps off when it discovered that federal law prohibited the cross-state transfer of certain “injurious” species like zebra mussels. The 113-year-old Lacey Act sets out harsh penalties, including massive fines, and possible jail time for anyone who knowingly transports the species across the border. As the district discovered from a Google Earth map, its pumps are in Oklahoma, meaning that it was piping its water across state lines.

That shutdown eliminated 28 percent of the supply used by a drinking water provider that serves a population of 1.6 million and growing. Mother Nature added another insult: a historic drought that further shrank supplies.

Now, as the cobwebs grow in a quiet station that had for years rumbled under the pressure of heavy machinery, Hickey eyes the orange circles. “Everybody that comes up here says, ‘This is ridiculous,’” she said.

 

It appears the state line sneaked up on the pump station in 2000, when Texas and Oklahoma thought they had ended their jockeying. That is when Congress ratified the Red River Boundary Compact, which set the boundary as the vegetation line along the south bank of the Red River. But that excluded Lake Texoma, constructed in the 1940s, where water hides the original riverbank. That stretch of the border was more confusing than contentious, perplexing officials trying to investigate crimes in the no man’s land.

“It’s been so ambiguous in the past that it’s created a real burden in taking cases to court because you have to prove jurisdiction,” Jeff Rabon, a former state senator of Oklahoma, told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. “There are actual cases where poor counties didn’t have the resources to put on a case to prove where a crime occurred.”

The states did not intend to move the Texoma line; they merely sought to define it. Ideally, they would have followed the United States Geological Survey map from 1939, which showed the boundary before the states dammed the river, said Bill Abney, a lawyer who led Texas’ volunteer 1997 boundary commission. But no one could find the map.

Instead, the commission referenced a series of geological survey “quad” maps printed in the 1970s and 1980s. On those maps, dotted lines labeled “indefinite boundary” snake across a blue expanse representing the lake. From those lines, surveyors plotted a series of 325 coordinates — simple for law enforcement to plug into a global positioning system — that would become the official border.

But those maps did not include the Texoma pumping station, which was built in 1987 after crews sought to make sure it was in Texas. The few people following the issue guess the quad maps were wrong by a few dozen feet.

“It’s pretty clear to me that there’s a little error there,” Abney said. “I’m sorry that we made the mistake, but it was not our intention to move the border.”

Could that error spark issues outside of the Texoma pumping station? Observers do not anticipate any but acknowledge others could arise.

The district is putting the finishing touches on a $300 million pipeline system — financed by ratepayers — that will pump Texoma water directly to a water treatment plant in Wylie, which will kill and filter out the mussels. The closed system will bypass a lake that used to hold the water before it reached the plant. Water officials had to lobby Congress to gain permission to turn on the system once it is complete. In December 2012, President Obama signed legislation exempting the district from the Lacey Act.

The exemption raises the question: do the states need to bother — again — with the border? Abney and others say yes. “If you find out something’s a problem,” he said, “you have to go and fix it.”

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.