Grotian Traditions, Thalwegs and Winner Take All

On December 19, 2007 · 4 Comments

Rivers are a natural boundaries and a pretty obvious way to determine who controls land on either bank, not withstanding occasional riverbed shifts. However rivers are also natural resources in their own right. They provide drinking water, irrigation, food and transportation. Those who control territory abutting a river naturally want to own and control access to the precious water coursing past. Methods have been devised to prevent or resolve disputes but there are only two basic approaches with minor variations. Either one landowner will control the river entirely or residents on opposing banks will find a way to split it. This can be established by negotiation, tradition, logic, adjudication, luck, force or by any other reason, but it all boils down to either sharing control or not.



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The Potomac River boundary is an example of “one side owns all.” In this instance Maryland and the District of Columbia own the river. Virginia, their cross-border neighbor does not. This arrangement traces its roots to a 1632 Royal Charter that continued to be applied across the centuries. It can be seen clearly in the map above where the border extends all the way to the Virginia shoreline. It sounds like such an elegantly simple solution but water rarely remains constant for long. Even in what would seemingly be a cut-and-dried instance, agreements are necessary to fix upon certain points such as the low-tide mark, the crossing of Virginia tributaries flowing into the river, and landform changes taking place during cycles of drought and flood. Disputes continue to flare into the modern era as water becomes an increasingly valuable commodity.



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It’s more common for neighbors to share ownership as in the case of the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington shown above. An early method involved an equal split right down the middle based on fundamentals of natural law advocated by Hugo Grotius in the early 17th Century. Such Grotian theories formed the underpinning of international law and provided a rational basis for dispute resolution and economic efficiency. However as in the example here, and indeed for most river boundaries, the Grotian model has not been applied. Notice how some of the islands fall within Oregon and others in Washington as the border zigzags between the Columbia’s riverbanks. That’s because river borders in the modern era generally follow the thalweg.

“For navigable rivers, which are commonly used for demarcating international boundaries, the legal rule dictates that the boundary line follow the middle of the thalweg, or the navigable channel through which the current flows downstream. If the river is not navigable, the older, Groation rule applies in which the boundary runs down the middle of the stream.” – Joyner, Christopher C. International Law in the 21st Century: Rules for Global Governance. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. 43.

So the thalweg is the midpoint of the deepest contiguous line along the bottom of a riverbed, and is also generally its point of greatest flow and natural direction. It is derived from the German words Tal meaning valley, and Weg, meaning way, and is alternately called the “valley line.” Since rivers twist and turn, and currents drop sediment in some locations and erode them in others, it’s no wonder that the thalweg usually swings back and forth between riverbanks.

Got all that? This will be useful for future posts.

On December 19, 2007 · 4 Comments

4 Responses to “Grotian Traditions, Thalwegs and Winner Take All”

  1. […] ownership of the river using the thalweg method outside of the circle. I have a previous entry that describes various methods of splitting river borders so go there if you’d like a more detailed explanation. As unusual as it sounds, the two […]

  2. Fritz Keppler says:

    I wrote to the Arlington County land surveyor recently and was disappointed to find out that there is no marker at the quadripoint of Arlington and Fairfax Counties, VA, Montgomery County MD and the District of Columbia. If there had been, I would have tried to reach it (by kayak?) at some low water period of the Potomac. GPS data is just not accurate enough for such precarious access.

  3. Jeff Rundell says:

    Take the second map down, the one with Blue Lake State Park in the center, and drag it east a little ways. You will find Rooster Rock State Park. The rock in question has a very unusual shape, as noted by Lewis and Clark and many since. It does NOT look like a rooster. Think of another word for rooster, think of another use of that word, and that is what the rock looks like!

  4. Gary says:

    The Connecticut River (the boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire) has the same type thing. The river itself belonged to New Hampshire – the state border is right at the normal low water mark on the Vermont shore. The border was finally officially set in 1934.

    Interstate 91 crosses the river twice – once in Connecticut and once in Massachusetts. Once entering Vermont, the highway runs along the west side of the river, never going into New Hampshire.

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