The Border Fight

As you might know, most of the states in the southeastern United States are gripped in a drought of Biblical proportions. Most locations in those states had a rainfall deficit of around two feet (61cm) – or more – last year. My home state of Georgia was especially hard hit. The city of Atlanta has grown almost uncontrollably in the past two decades, from barely over 1 million residents in the early 1980s to just over 5 million souls today. This has put an incredible strain on the area’s reservoirs. Lake Lanier, the Atlanta area’s main source of water, fell to its lowest level ever in December, 2007. Wikipedia notes that

[T]he record low lake level had revealed parts of the lake bottom not seen since the 1950s, when approximately 700 families were moved from the area to create the lake. An abandoned stretch of Georgia Highway 53 ran along one edge of new shoreline, and concrete foundations from homes and part of what was once the Gainesville’s Looper Speedway were uncovered. More recent additions to the lake including discarded trash, boat batteries and even sunken boats were discovered, and local efforts to clean up the lake bottom were organized. Several automobiles, some stolen, and also discarded firearms were also recovered by law enforcement officials.

Georgia is rapidly running out of options to bolster its dwindling supply of fresh water. Things are so bad, in fact, that the Georgia legislature is looking to a historical anomaly for help: its border with Tennessee.

When Tennessee was admitted into the Union in 1796, the United States Congress declared the border between Tennessee and Georgia to be the 35th parallel. In 1818, a surveying team was sent out to mark the border. The team made a surveying mistake which caused Tennessee’s border to be extended south by 1 mile. A mile might not sound like much, but it makes a huge difference: the Tennessee River makes a bend in the area that should belong to Georgia, and if the state had access to this sliver of land, it could go a long way in helping out Georgia’s water situation.

GA\TN Border Dispute

Tennessee lawmakers have made light of the situation, but Georgia is, apparently, deadly serious about the matter. The legislation passed by the Georgia legislature orders Governor Sonny Perdue to set up a “border commission” to investigate the matter, and to pursue the matter all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

What the Supreme Court might think about the matter is anyone’s guess: although the (incorrect) border has been recognized by both Georgia and Tennessee for almost 200 years, this isn’t the first time Georgia has challenged the border. Georgia previously made half-hearted attempts to correct the error in the 1880s and 1940s. And although Tennessee adopted the 1818 survey results as law, Georgia never has. In fact, according to Georgia law, the border with Tennessee always was (and still is) the 35th parallel.

It’s also unclear how long it would take the Supreme Court to rule on such a matter. Although the Court has original jurisdiction in matters between the states, the Court could opt to appoint a “special master” as a fact-finder. So the dispute could go on for years. Peter Appel, an associate professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, says that both sides have good arguments: “On one hand, where the boundary was set in 1818, the states have been living with it for all that time. On the other hand, the survey is off, and the fact that time has passed doesn’t mean a state has ceded the land. It’s a really tough one to speculate on.”

What’s really interesting is to consider what would happen if the Supreme Court decides in favor of Georgia. Several small Tennessee towns – East Ridge, East Brainerd, and St. Elmo – would be swallowed whole into Georgia. Residents of parts of Chattanooga and East Ridge would become Georgians, and a large chunk of Memphis would become part of Mississippi. A large chunk of Lookout Mountain would also become part of Georgia. It’s worth nothing that the Supreme Court would definitely take the chaos any border change would cause into account.

But even if Georgia did get its original border back, that doesn’t necessarily mean that water would instantly flow – the Tennessee Valley Authority would have to approve any widescale tapping of the Tennessee River, even if the land were to become Georgia territory. It’s not at all clear how the TVA would rule in that situation. One would think that the petition would be denied, but then Georgia could take them to court over “sour grapes”.

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