In Latest War Between the States, Georgia Says Tennessee Is All Wet
By: Cameron McWhirter, The Wall Street Journal
MARION COUNTY, Tenn.—Brad Carver, a Georgia lobbyist, is thirsting for a small patch of land just north of the line now dividing Georgia from Tennessee.
Two centuries ago, surveyors from Georgia and Tennessee marched through the region's mountains and hollows to mark the official border between the two states. They were supposed to follow the 35th parallel, according to an agreement approved in 1802 by Congress.
Instead, they wandered about a mile south, marking a border that puts the Georgia state line here, just a minute's stroll from the edge of the broad Tennessee River.
That has led to years of water wars between Georgia and Tennessee, as the Peach state's population has exploded, outstripping its water supply—all while the Tennessee River has flowed achingly close.
Now Mr. Carver has floated a resolution in the Georgia state legislature that calls on Tennessee to give Georgia about 1.5 square miles of forest and meadow north of a small country road here called Huckabee Lane—just enough to get a pipe into a wide inlet at a dammed-up part of the river called Nickajack Lake. He says that could easily supply parched Georgians with more than a billion gallons of water a day.
On a recent visit, Mr. Carver, in a gray suit and sunglasses, carefully walked across the soggy, disputed land and stopped at the water's edge.
"We call this occupied Georgia," he said, pointing to the wet earth.
The 41-year-old Mr. Carver, whose clients include the Georgia Association of Realtors, major hospital systems and energy companies, says he feels so strongly about the state's water rights that he is lobbying on the water issue pro bono for no specific client.
He is proposing what he calls a generous swap. Georgia would give up its long-standing claim to be the rightful owner of about 68 square miles of land and water given to Tennessee when the surveyors mistakenly ambled off the parallel. It includes large parts of the river, several towns and the homes of 30,871 residents, Mr. Carver says.
To make his point, he has handed out white papers on the bungled border, pressed the issue with numerous Georgia politicians and appeared on a History Channel program called "How the States Got Their Shapes," where he hit a golf ball from Huckabee Lane into the Tennessee River to show viewers how close it is.
If the Volunteer state doesn't accept the offer, Georgia will take its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the arbiter of all state border disputes, says Mr. Carver.
Tennessee says Georgia's proposal is all wet. "The governor will continue to protect the interests and resources of Tennessee," a spokesman for Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said in an email.
Mr. Carver's resolution—the 10th from Georgia since 1887 calling for a change in the border—passed overwhelmingly in both legislative chambers.
His proposal is less bellicose and more modest—yet more desperate—than past claims to the mismarked land. Over the years, resolutions from agitated Georgia legislators have called for the return of all 68 square miles. A resolution in 2008 prompted Ron Littlefield, the mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., to send a truck of bottled water to the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta along with a proclamation calling Georgia lawmakers "misguided souls" engaged in "irrational and outrageous actions seeking to move a long established and peaceful boundary."
"It is feared that if today they come for our river, tomorrow they might come for our Jack Daniel's or George Dickel," the proclamation read, referring to Tennessee whiskey.
Georgia legislators see little humor in the situation. When the Georgia senate passed the resolution 48 to 2 on March 25, state Sen. Charlie Bethel, a Republican from north Georgia, sternly condemned Tennessee politicians' "late jocularity on the issue." The resolution directs the state to sue if Tennessee doesn't cooperate.
A spokeswoman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declined to comment on whether he supports the resolution.
Georgia is thirsty despite a rainy winter that has filled reservoirs. Its population has nearly doubled over the past 40 years, and frequent droughts have restricted development and forced residents of Atlanta at times to use dirty water to irrigate their gardens.
Experts on the history of American surveying say many state borders in the Eastern U.S. have quirky twists and turns. Tennessee's borders with Virginia and Kentucky are also off the mark of what was originally approved.
Tennessee's claim that it should continue to control the land stems from "acquiescence," a concept in property law that it has the right to keep a boundary if it is not contested over a long period. Mr. Carver and other Georgians insist their state has complained about the border to Tennessee numerous times and therefore never "acquiesced."
It remains to be seen whether Georgia's threat to take the case to the Supreme Court holds water. Any state in a border dispute with another can petition directly to the high court under judicial powers defined in Article III of the Constitution, according to Joseph Zimmerman, a political-science professor at the University at Albany, State University of New York, and the author of several books on interstate disputes.
Mr. Zimmerman said the court almost always takes such cases, and then appoints a special master, usually a retired judge, to review the facts of the case and sometimes make a recommendation to the court.
"This could very well happen, if Georgia wants to push it," he said.
Even if Georgia ever got the boundary moved, it still wouldn't necessarily be able to slake its thirst. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the property in question and manages the river here, would have final say on whether Georgia could pipe out water, according to a spokeswoman.
Buster McCulley's parents are buried in an old cemetery on the land Mr. Carver is proposing to annex from Tennessee. The 82-year-old preacher from Alabama said he didn't think his departed ancestors would mind suddenly becoming Georgians.
"I don't think they'd be much disturbed," he said. "Probably when they started the cemetery they didn't give much thought to what state it was in anyway."
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