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Shifting rivers muddy county lines

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LEWISVILLE, Ark. (AP) _ In the 1820s, when officials of what was then the Arkansas Territory chose the Red River as a boundary line for its southwestern counties, they probably couldn't have dreamed that their decision would cause confusion over the next 175 years.

At almost every one of its ancient bends, the river has changed course because of floods, erosion or some Corps of Engineers project. To the west, the river became the boundary between Mexico and Indian Territory, and now forms the line between Texas and Oklahoma.

A few years ago, those two states decided to settle once and for all the debate over the shifting river channel and the shifting state line. The actual line is now defined as the vegetation line on the south bank of the river.

There is no such law in Arkansas. Once a portion of a county was marked off, it was forever to be a part of that county, no matter where the river drifted. Along the Red, jigsaw puzzle pieces of four counties creating bubbles of Miller County on the east bank, Lafayette County on the west, and Little River County south of the Texas-side bank.

``As bizarre as it may seem to someone who doesn't live in it, it's just everyday business for those who do,'' said Lafayette County Assessor Linda Sparrow. ``It's pretty much always been that way.''

Sparrow calls the sections created by the wayward river ``accretions and avulsions.'' Though the Red may change course, a county line does not deviate from its pre-Civil War location. Sparrow says only the state Legislature can switch the lines.

``You can't add sections to an existing county,'' she said. ``You can add accretions. A lot of times it takes a court case. There's always a dispute of some sort. It's just like shifting puzzle pieces. The boundary doesn't change.''

She covered the issue when she took office in 1981, seeking an official ruling. She said there have been no accretions or avulsions during her tenure, with the last caused by a government river diversion project.

She said those on her county's tax rolls who live on the Miller County side of the river just accept it as part of life next to one of America's great rivers.

``It's not a whole lot of a problem,'' Lafayette County Judge Frank Scroggins said. ``I've got one road on the Miller County side that I maintain, on an island. It's only one place and I've got a road in Miller County on my side of the river.''

Little River County Judge Clyde Wright said such anomalies are not exclusive to the Red River in his county.

``On the Little River, we've got land across the river (on the Sevier County side, to the north) that belongs in this county,'' he said. ``The river changed course. It's called the Cut-Off area. But it's no problem at all.''

He said folks on the Sevier County side of the river who are nonetheless residents of Little River County pay their taxes in Ashdown instead of De Queen, and the two sheriff's offices have reciprocal agreements to iron out coverage of such areas.

As the Red River winds between Arkansas and Texas, the actual state line gives Texas some land between the river and Old River Lake in western Little River County. Less than a mile downstream, the land between Hurricane Bend Lake and the river on the Texas side is legally Arkansas territory.

Near Fulton, three counties meet where the Little and Red come together. According to maps, Little River claims an island at the confluence. Most of the bridges over the Red, from U.S. Highway 259 near De Kalb and Arkansas 160 east of Doddridge, cross the river at a point where lines still follow the channel.

The issue is much more pronounced on Arkansas' east border, where state lines drift away from the Mississippi River for miles, where the channel has shifted from its 19th century location.

Sparrow suggests any landowners or residents in doubt as to their home county or state get their acreage surveyed.

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