The (Water) War Between the States

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John Bazemore / AP

A marker in Cole City Hollow, Tennessee, marks the state lines of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Georgia lawmakers claim that a flawed survey placed the state line one mile further south than it should be.

In the middle of its epic drought last year, Georgia decided to pick a fight. The state resurrected a 190-year-old cartographical mistake and passed a resolution forming a commission to negotiate with Tennessee on moving Georgia's border about a mile north to the 35th parallel — not coincidentally through a loop of the Tennessee River. The good people of Tennessee treated Georgia's move as a joke. Tennessee State Sen. Andy Berke, whose Chattanooga district would become part of Georgia under the other state's plan, proposed a winner-take-all wrestling match or football game to settle the matter; Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield sent an aide dressed as Davy Crockett to deliver a truckload of water to Georgia legislators.

But to Georgians, this is no laughing matter. The state doesn't really want those 150 sq. miles back (they were erroneously included in Tennessee by surveyors who were either drunk, afraid of Indians or using faulty equipment). Georgia, however, does want access to the water Tennessee law currently says cannot be transferred out of state.

Georgia is desperate — and Tennessee isn't the only neighbor it is poking. Last year Lake Lanier, Atlanta's primary water source, hit record lows and Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue took on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, demanding that the flow of water from the reservoir and the Chattahoochee River downstream to Florida and Alabama be restricted. The Corps politely disagreed and more recently a federal court ruled Georgia's access to Lake Lanier be curtailed.

Now Georgia has turned its attention north to the state boundary it says it never ratified and the billions of gallons of water just out of reach on the other side. "Georgia not only has legal and historical claim to the Tennessee River, but it has an ecological one because all of Northwest Georgia drains into the Tennessee River," Georgia State Sen. David Shafer told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

There is no doubt the boundary was incorrectly drawn, but Tennessee lawmakers point out that error was made nearly 200 years ago. While the issue is periodically resurrected, Georgia has never sought a court remedy and never disputed elections in the parts of Tennessee it now claims. Nor has it provided infrastructure, tried to collect taxes or even challenged official maps delineating the state lines. Tennessee lawmakers have flatly rejected any possibility of border talks and in their own resolution condemned Georgia for its "heinous assault on the sovereignty of Tennessee."

If Georgia is serious — and the legislature's resolution allows the issue to be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, which settles such disputes — Tennessee is very likely to demand payment for the land. The current value is more than $2 billion.

Instead of envisioning pipelines running from the Tennessee River to Atlanta, Tennessee official say their counterparts to the south should devote their time and money to conserving water and restricting growth. Moving water from the Tennessee River to Atlanta would not only need approval from Tennessee, but also from federal authorities including the Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates several nuclear power plants on the Tennessee River. Such approval is doubtful, and even if it were forthcoming, the water would then have to be piped over several mountains.

"What they're proposing, even if they could get over the legal hurdles, would amount to the largest public works project in the history of the Southeast," says Littlefield. "A wildly conservative estimate would put the cost at about $200 billion. There are simple, far more cost-effective solutions to their problems instead of the Georgia legislature going off on some Don Quixote quest."