Georgia Revives Old Fight to Move Tennessee Border

A dam across the Tennessee River. The Georgia House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would establish a commission to convince Tennessee to cede a one-mile strip of land along the river to help address Atlanta’s water needs.

(CN) – Georgia lawmakers reignited a simmering feud with Tennessee by recently approving a resolution that would establish a commission to convince the Volunteer State to give up a one-mile strip of land so it can access the Tennessee River.

Georgia says the discrepancy has stood for 200 years. According to the resolution passed in February by the Georgia House of Representatives, the state originally agreed to have its border drawn at the 35th parallel, which would have placed the line where Georgia could access the Tennessee River.

But the surveyors in the original 1818 land survey missed the mark. The bank of Nickajack Lake, which is fed by the river, barely skates by Georgia’s northwest corner.

So the Peach State is trying once again to move the border slightly north so that it can access water flowing along the Tennessee River, according to the resolution’s sponsor, Georgia State Representative Marc Morris.

Lawmakers believe a pipeline from the river to Atlanta would help address the state capital’s water needs. The resolution proposes a joint boundary line commission involving Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

If the unlikely effort succeeds, many Tennesseans would be faced with the possibility of having to switch driver’s licenses, vote in different polling places and pay Georgia’s income taxes.

Northern Georgia is part of a watershed that feeds about half a billion gallons of water a day into the Tennessee River, according to Morris. The state wants to recoup some of that natural resource which is flowing downstream, eventually emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

Morris represents Cumming, Ga., which sits on the border of Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s main water supply. He said Georgia and the federal government never ratified the border, although Tennessee agreed to it.

“So it’s almost like open legislation that has been laying out there that has never been finished,” Morris said in a phone interview.

So far, Georgia’s efforts have been rebuffed.

At one point, Georgia sought to buy some of the water out of the Tennessee River, but the Volunteer State responded by passing a law forbidding interbasin transfers, according to Morris.

Morris said that by creating the commission – which would be abolished on Dec. 1 of this year – George, Tennessee and North Carolina can sit down and work out an agreement without relying on a court wading in.

“If parties typically don’t want to talk when there’s an issue, then they end up in court,” Morris said. “I’d much rather not see that. Look, Tennessee’s been great friends for forever. They’re the Volunteer State; they’re the folks that show up. And I know the honest, hardworking people of Tennessee would never want to take anything that didn’t belong to them.”

A decade ago, the neighborly dispute heated up.

It started with Bart Crattie’s October 2007 article in The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. The Chattanooga-area surveyor, who is secretary of the Surveyors Historical Society, penned a piece pointing out that the state border is not where it should have been.

The surveyors in 1818 used a less-than-accurate naval sextant as they blazed a line through then-Cherokee territory. Crattie thought it would be an interesting article at a time when Georgia was experiencing a severe drought.

In response, Georgia lawmakers floated a resolution in 2008 that recognized the 35th parallel north as the state’s true border.

In response to Georgia’s move, one Tennessee lawmaker suggested the state militia should stand guard on the border. Then-Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield declared a Feb. 27, 2008, as “Give Our Georgia Friends a Drink Day” and sent a truck of bottled water to the Peach State’s capitol.

In 2013, the Georgia legislature tried again by authorizing its attorney general to sue Tennessee over the border, but that effort also went nowhere.

Today, Crattie believes that if challenged, Georgia’s argument for a right to the water in the Tennessee River would not hold up in court, thanks to well-established precedent dating back to English common law.

“They don’t change borders. The Supreme Court won’t do that. There’s more harm done than good, if they were to do something like that,” he said in a phone interview. “And Georgia’s acquiesced for a number of years. All the railroad surveys recognized it. And they did a survey in the 1940s, a Geodesic survey, of that line and it was a really, really precise survey but they recognized that line where it is.”

Recently, Crattie said, Tennessee has ended up ignoring the issue.

“Tennessee’s not interested in talking to them, I’m sure,” Crattie said.

Courthouse News reached out to two Tennessee state senators and the mayoral offices of Chattanooga and the nearby town of East Ridge, Tenn., for comment on the issue. None responded to requests for comments, except Chattanooga, which declined.

The U.S. Supreme Court has original jurisdiction if two states are in dispute, according to Randy Beck, constitutional law professor at the University of Georgia School of Law.

Beck wrote in an email, “The court has often resolved such cases in the past. It often refers the case to a ‘special master,’ a legal expert who gathers evidence and makes a report to the justices which may help them reach a decision.”

For example, Beck pointed out that in 1998, the high court decided that New Jersey rather than New York owned expanded and filled portions of Ellis Island.

In January, the justices heard oral arguments in a case that Florida brought against Georgia. The Sunshine State accused Georgia of lapping up more than its share of the water that flows through the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, hurting oyster beds in the Apalachicola Bay and putting a blight on the economy in that part of Florida.

“Millions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent on lawyers in that case,” Gil Rogers, director of the Georgia and Alabama offices of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a phone interview. “And this just seems to be inviting a whole new interstate conflict that’s not going to go anywhere and they kind of distract from the conversations we really should be having, about what does a sustainable water supply for Atlanta look like?”

Besides government spending, a project that taps Tennessee River water would also come with environmental impacts and the challenges with transporting water over miles, according to Rogers. It would be easier to expand Lake Lanier or more efficiently use the water already available to Georgia, he said.

“We really need to get more serious about water planning and management,” Rogers said. “We’re doing better than we were, but we’re also experiencing a lot more frequent droughts and major storm events and just the way we receive rainfall is changing.”

Georgia’s resolution to create a boundary line commission must first get through the state Senate before it could head to the governor’s desk.

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