Georgia got great news this past week in the long-running “water wars.” A lawyer assigned by the U.S. Supreme Court to adjudicate Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia found in our favor, saying our neighbors to the south had failed to prove that capping the water Georgia draws from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers would solve their problems.
It is possible Florida will now change tacks and sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the lawyer, Ralph Lancaster, noted repeatedly in his report that he could not recommend actions by the Corps because it was not a party to the suit. There’s also a chance, probably small, that the Supreme Court would go against his recommendation. But as things stand today, Georgia’s days of playing defense against Florida about the flow of water between Lake Lanier and the Apalachicola Bay appear to be over.
Now it’s time to turn northward, and play offense.
Georgia was threatened by the possibility of an adverse decision in the Florida lawsuit in large part because of a surveyor’s mistake on the other end of the state more than 200 years ago. That error set Georgia’s border with Tennessee ever so slightly too far south — just far enough that the mighty Tennessee River lies beyond our northernmost edge.
It’s a mistake Georgia has sought repeatedly to correct, without any cooperation from our neighbors to the north. A resolution the General Assembly passed in 2013, urging their counterparts in Tennessee to come to the negotiating table, marked the 10th time since 1887 legislators have raised the issue. Federal courts and agencies in recent decades have recognized that the border remains in dispute.
The Tennessee River, at least at the point where it was supposed to dip down into Georgia, flows at an extremely high volume: The Tennessee Valley Authority in 2004 found it had excess capacity of 1 billion gallons per day. That’s far more than Georgia would need to help alleviate its water issues. Tapping into it in extreme northwest Georgia in order to help metro Atlanta would be controversial, as it would require an interbasin transfer of water. But it is doable, and it could prove necessary someday.
After Lancaster’s recommendation, it may seem the urgency to do so has lessened. Not so. The time to settle the question of our border with Tennessee, and riparian rights to the Tennessee River, is now, when our backs are not up against the proverbial wall because of litigation with Florida (or Alabama) over the Chattahoochee-Flint. It is worth noting Lancaster just last month suggested revisiting this idea. That might carry more weight now that he has also ruled in our favor against Florida.
There is plenty of precedent for adjusting state borders. The Supreme Court settled a similar fight between Maryland and Virginia and 2003. North Carolina and South Carolina recently tweaked their border willingly, moving a couple of dozen people on each side from one state to the other.
Georgia’s 2013 resolution sought to avoid annexing Tennessee homes into Georgia, instead requesting a piece of land just wide enough to give us access to the Tennessee River at Nickajack Lake, west of Chattanooga. If Tennessee won’t agree willingly, Georgia should be ready to ask the Supreme Court to do the job.