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Historic MHW or Shoreline? The Ongoing Littoral Dilemma

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North America's shorelines have been discovered, explored, mapped, and modified by Europeans and Americans for over 500 years. Safety of navigation was a major concern of maritime powers. It still is. When the former English colony developed into the United States of America, safe navigation was still on the agenda, and the Coast Survey was born. Over time, the emphasis moved from navigation to preservation. In Massachusetts, the Public Trust Doctrine became codified in the Colonial Ordinance of 1641 and progressed to the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. Coastal wetlands such as salt marshes, mudflats, and estuaries, formerly considered of low value, have become invaluable assets of both private properties and the public domain. Competing interests from Massachusetts to Florida, to Texas and California, not to forget Hawaii or Alaska, continue to put intense pressure on America's fragile coastline. Preservation and restoration of coastal wetlands have become a worldwide concern and challenge. The UN Law of the Sea Treaty will be a challenge to future surveyors and hydrographers. In the U.S., the elusive and dynamic mean high water (MHW) line, which separates public from private littoral rights, was defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in California in the so-called Borax case in 1935. For its reliable location, tidal observations of a 19-year Metonic cycle are still needed to determine reliably where that line is. Sometimes, one has to go back in history in order to find out where the original historic MHW mark used to be. Modern sciences of photogrammetry, remote sensing, marine biology, and marine geology have begun to make themselves heard, and they sometimes replace the traditional and more precise surveying engineering technology of tidal observations. Meanwhile, MHW, MHHW (mean higher high water), and MLLW (mean lower low water), and shoreline are all having their day in court. Landmark court decisions of the Dolphin Lane case in New York, the Hackensack Meadowland case in New Jersey, the Kennedy Ranch case in Texas, and the Lynn Wal-Mart case and the Island End River case in Massachusetts are briefly discussed.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2006

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  • Surveying and Land Information Science (SaLIS) is the official publication of the American Association of Geodetic Surveying (AAGS) and the Geographic and Land Information Society (GLIS).

    SaLIS is a scientific journal devoted to reporting research and new work conducted to advance geodetic surveying, land surveying, large-scale mapping, and geographic information systems designed to advance the development and management of the cadastral parcel data layer and other land information applications. SaLIS publishes research articles, technical papers, technical notes, papers on the current state of surveying education, surveying history, book reviews, and current literature reviews. Every four years, the journal publishes the U.S. Report to the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG). The Proceedings of the Surveying Teachers Conference are published bi-annually.

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    For information about GLIS visit

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