Georgia-Tennessee water dispute

Moderated by Rick Badie

Georgia and Tennessee are in a standoff as it relates to water and state boundary lines. Georgia, in search of a long-term solution to quench its thirst, wants to tap the Tennessee River. Volunteer State officials refuse to grant access. Today, we present both sides of the ongoing dispute.

Good-faith effort avoids litigation

By Brad Carver

For nearly 200 years, Georgia and Tennessee have been disputing the location of their border.

Georgia House Resolution 4 is the Peach State’s effort to be a good neighbor to our Volunteer neighbors, encouraging them to put the proverbial fence in the correct place.

Flowing through the Tennessee River are more than 1.6 billion gallons of Georgia water, arriving from rills, creeks and rivers in Georgia’s Blue Ridge, among the rainiest parts of the continental U.S. The Tennessee Valley Authority estimates the river has at least 1 billion gallons of excess capacity each day. Just half of that daily excess would meet all of metro Atlanta’s water needs for the next 100 years.

Georgia has been disputing its border with Tennessee since 1818, when a flawed survey improperly sited the line one mile south of the mutually agreed upon border at the 35th parallel. Georgia never accepted the survey; Tennessee did and has since rebuffed or ignored 10 different attempts by Georgia to solve the issue.

It’s understandable why Tennessee has sought to avoid this conversation. This disputed one-mile strip of land contains 30,000 residents and a bend of the Tennessee River, the seventh-largest river in the U.S. Controlling access to the river gives Tennessee an economic advantage. Without access to the river, Atlanta might eventually dry up.

H.R. 4 is a good-faith effort to avoid litigation. This proposal would grant Georgia riparian rights to the Tennessee River by moving the border only at the Nickajack reservoir and recognizing the remainder of the flawed survey as the official boundary.

This resolution spares both sides a contentious legal battle, one with the odds stacked against our northern neighbors. Additionally, it helps prevent chronic flooding in the Tennessee River valley and provides extra water to Georgia, Alabama and Florida. This is truly a regional solution to the Southeast’s water troubles.

Contrary to arm-chair legal scholars who dismiss our case, there is a litany of legal justification for Georgia’s claim, should it come to litigation. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on five state border disputes in the past 15 years and hundreds since the founding of our country.

Because Georgia never ceded its right to the disputed land and both parties acknowledge the 35th parallel is the true border, Tennessee is in violation of Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution by claiming a portion of another state. Unlike general property law, the concept of “adverse possession” — claiming land so long that it eventually becomes yours — does not apply to governments.

Tennessee also has weakened its hand through its own legal history. Its state Legislature passed resolutions in 1889 and 1905 claiming “grave doubts” about the current border with Georgia. The “grave doubts” argument was used at that time to initiate a settlement with Mississippi and change that border to the 35th parallel. Today, Memphis International Airport resides in what was once Mississippi.

Let’s solve this problem together and leave the battles for the football field.

Brad Carver is senior managing director of government affairs for the Atlanta law firm Hall Booth Smith.

Georgia moves to shift boundary

By The Chattanooga Times Free Press

The Tennessee River is not to be taken for granted.

It shouldn’t be piped to North Georgia in a land grab, either.

In 1998, a Georgia planner named Harry West half jokingly talked of sticking “a big straw” in the Tennessee to bring water to thirsty Atlanta.

The talk made headlines and galvanized Tennessee state officials to action, drafting a new permitting law that bans what is called “interbasin transfers.” The bill quickly passed unanimously.

In approving it, Tennessee lawmakers and policy wonks pointed to the example of the Colorado River, which once flowed from the Rockies into Mexico and then to the Gulf of California. Now, after being diverted hundreds of miles to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and other fast-growing cities and acres of thirsty deserts converted to croplands, 70 percent of the Colorado’s water is siphoned away.

What was once a lush delta in Mexico where the river joined the ocean is now dry.

The Tennessee River is the nation’s fifth-largest river system with a nearly 41,000-square-mile drainage area — the basin or watershed of the river as it flows 652 miles from upper east Tennessee through Knoxville, Chattanooga and Huntsville, Ala., and Eastport, Miss., before it turns north and runs back into the Volunteer State. It crosses the state to form the division between Middle and West Tennessee before flowing finally into the Ohio River at Paducah, Ky.

Georgia, claiming that a botched 1826 land survey set its border with Tennessee one mile too far south and cheated Georgia of a cornerhold on the river, wants to move the state line and pipe away hundreds of millions of gallons a day.

Estimates now indicate metro Atlanta and North Georgia would need at least 264 million gallons a day just to make up expected 2030 “net deficits” in the Chattahoochee and Coosa river basins that now serve them.

Why so much? Because Atlanta is one of the few cities on the continent that was not built on a river or water source that could sustain it. And it keeps growing, but not dealing with that growth in any durable way.

Chattanoogans, on average, use 95 gallons of water per person per day, according to Tennessee American Water Co.

In Atlanta, that per-person number is 151 gallons a day, according to Georgia’s Environmental Protection Department. And that’s despite summer watering bans and public urgings for conservation.

Nonetheless, Georgia lawmakers recently fast-tracked a new bill — the 10th in about as many years — seeking to move the state line to the 35th parallel, the marker Congress intended as the border between the states.

And it’s all to give Georgia about an acre of access to the Tennessee River near Nickajack Cave.

This bill differs from previous ones in that it wouldn’t move the entire state line. Instead it seeks a 1.5-square-mile strip of land, not 65.5 square miles.

Tennessee lawmakers mostly have just shaken their heads.

We hope Atlanta can find an appropriate solution.

But the river in our backyard is not it.

This is an edited reprint of an editorial that appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Georgia’s 15-mile claim in Tennessee

By David Ibata

The Georgia General Assembly again wants to slake metro Atlanta’s thirst with water from the mighty Tennessee River. It’s passed a resolution seeking negotiations — at the threat of a lawsuit — with the state of Tennessee to acquire just enough land to run a pipeline to the river’s Nickajack Lake, west of Chattanooga.

The land measures only 1.5 square miles, but it might as well be the moon, as it’s somebody else’s state. Those Volunteers may laugh at our request, but maybe they’re unaware of a precedent: 165 years ago, they let us have a chunk of their state, and Georgia still owns it.

The claim is about 15 miles long by 66 feet wide. It begins at the state line north of Graysville, curves around Missionary Ridge on the Tennessee side and ends deep inside Chattanooga. It’s the north end of the Western & Atlantic, the 138-mile-long railroad built by Georgia before the Civil War to connect the future cities of Atlanta and Chattanooga.

So eager was Tennessee to get a hookup for its own railroad building south from Nashville, that state’s legislature in February 1848 passed a bill granting Georgia “the privilege of making every necessary recognizance and survey for the purpose of ascertaining the most eligible route for the extension of her Western & Atlantic Railroad from the Georgia line to some point on the eastern margin of the Tennessee River,” and allowing Georgia “the right of way for the extension and construction.”

Too bad Georgia no longer controls the riverfront real estate. Not only could we be collecting rent from the Tennessee Aquarium, our riparian rights would be without question. But in a fit of pique over trains running up what is now Broad Street, about 1870, Chattanooga’s city fathers tore up the rails between Ninth Street and the waterfront.

An official history of the W&A in the collection of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw shows Chattanooga and Georgia were still feuding in 1927. That year — in an indication of the importance the state assigned to the W&A — Georgia convened a special commission involving the governor, PSC chairman and members of the state Senate and House to investigate an incursion of city streets into the railroad’s right-of-way near Chattanooga Union Station.

That depot (not to be confused with the former Terminal Station, now the “Choo Choo”) has been gone since 1973, but Georgia still owns the Western & Atlantic. CSX Transportation leases the line and last year paid the state $8.1 million rent to run its trains over it, according to the Georgia State Properties Commission.

Now, as we seek Tennessee’s permission to put a big straw in their river, our neighbors to the north ought to remember there’s already a piece of Georgia sticking 15 miles into their body politic. It may be too early to say if this ancient land holding gives Georgia leverage in negotiations, but it certainly could liven up the discussion.


David Ibata is an editorial editor for the AJC and serves on the Kennesaw Museum Foundation board of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.

19 comments Add your comment


April 19th, 2013
5:50 am

Simple negotiations – offer Georgia’s support to develop the Chattanooga Airport as a reliever for the Atlanta Airport and in return rights to pipe water from the Tennessee River.


April 18th, 2013
4:47 pm

Horizontal drilling aye! To learn how it’s done watch the “I drink your milkshake” scene toward the end of “There Will Be Blood” in which Daniel Plainview ’splains the process.

John Ellison

April 18th, 2013
4:32 pm

Georgia should investigate the possible use of horizontal drilling technology currently being utilized to tap gas and oil in this country. They would be able to drill vertically in Georgia and run the drill horizontally into the Tennessee River.


April 18th, 2013
3:50 pm

My comment about the costs of a pipeline about three hours ago should have talked about billions, not millions. Seems like a billion is the starting point for any public spending.


April 18th, 2013
3:27 pm

How about our legislature start movement on a plan to create and build the infrastructure such as dams and pipelines to satisfy Georgia’s needs instead of wasting time on silly ideas such as this.
If our leaders spent time planning for the future we wouldn’t have to worry about trying to steal the Tennessee River’s water.
Tennessee had the TVA and work projects to harness their natural resources. Its time Georgia did the same. Plenty of rain falls here to take care of our needs…. if we actually had leadership that took the time and planned ahead.

Please Don't Squeeze the Sherman

April 18th, 2013
2:42 pm

What you Southerners always forget is that you lost the War in ignominious defeat (not long after Sherman trounced Chattanooga and besieged Atlanta) because you acted as bad neighbors. Likely, it will once again be the North, this time via the Supreme Court, that will decide your fate, if the backward States of Georgia and Tennessee cannot agree.

Sherman should have burned all of Atlanta to the ground so that Congress could have had the opportunity to replace Georgia’s government with one created by Northerners. This would have avoided the century-exceeding period of infancy in which Georgia still wallows, although Tennessee is closer to a zygote when it comes to respecting human rights, embracing science over religion, etc. Alas, the South remains an embarrassing, chronic tumor that the United States should have cauterized and resettled over a century ago.

So, give Georgia its water, Tennessee, because, obnoxious neighbor, you are once again in contempt of the Constitution of the United States. Atlanta is the successful city that you wish you had, minus its incompetent, Affirmative-Action riffraff, of course. Spend your energy instead on becoming a progressive State, and you will draw the smart Northerners you need to transform yourself into a respectable belle.

Van Jones

April 18th, 2013
2:35 pm

Excellent point, Rob. Checkmate, Jim Huff. Care to play again?


April 18th, 2013
2:26 pm

because you never owned it to give it away, jim

Jim Huff

April 18th, 2013
1:34 pm

Personal insults are crude and irrelevant. What is relevant is our Tennessee River is a natural economic asset and an advantage and allowing Georgia free access would be irrational for Tennessee. Explain exactly why we in Tennessee should improve our competitors attractiveness for new industries and growth at the expense of our competitiveness?