NASHVILLE — A Chattanooga senator warned colleagues Thursday that a fight with Georgia over Tennessee River water is anything but over despite their official rejection of Peach State lawmakers’ now-abandoned attempts to convene a joint boundary commission to resurvey the two states’ border.
“Over the next decade, we’re going to be dealing with this no matter what happens with this border,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, as the Senate passed a House resolution rejecting a boundary commission to survey the long-disputed border.
Georgia lawmakers say the boundary properly lies about 1.1 miles north of the current one, a move that would give Georgia access to the Tennessee River at Nickajack Lake in Marion County. Georgia is facing serious problems slaking the thirst of an increasingly dehydrated Atlanta region.
“They’ve been fighting with Florida,” Sen. Berke said of Georgia lawmakers. “They’ve been fighting with Alabama. They’re going to be fighting with us. We may as well get prepared for the long haul on dealing with this issue and on water conservation.”
Tennessee House Joint Resolution 919 easily swept through the Senate on a 32-0 vote. It earlier passed the House on a 91-0 vote.
The resolution rejects Georgia lawmakers’ original attempts this year to convene a joint boundary commission to examine a border that has been in dispute since an 1818 survey. Sen. Berke noted Georgia officials “abandoned any pretense that this is about anything other than water” by offering to give up their efforts to move the border north in exchange for access to the Tennessee River at Nickajack Lake.
But Sen. Berke also pointed to last-minute action by Georgia lawmakers earlier this month authorizing Gov. Sonny Perdue to begin border dispute negotiations with Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen. If talks fail, the Georgia legislature directed Gov. Perdue to file suit. The U.S. Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over state boundary disputes.
In an e-mail, a leader of Georgia’s effort, state Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, said, “We have not abandoned our effort to correct the boundary line error. We amended our legislation to direct the governor to commence negotiations, and failing that, to file suit.”
Sen. Shafer said he is “disappointed” Tennessee wouldn’t go along with the boundary-line commission but said he remains “hopeful that the dispute can be resolved in a neighborly fashion.”
“An interstate compact settling the dispute would be far better than a winner-take-all lawsuit, particularly for Tennessee,” he cautioned.
During his remarks, Sen. Berke used Atlanta as a cautionary tale for all that can go wrong as a result of bad planning and policies. He noted several water-planning bills are up in the Tennessee legislature this year and others will likely come in future years.
“It is important that we also think about how we use water and how we conserve so that we can look and never be Atlanta and never have to be in this same situation,” Sen. Berke said.
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said the Tennessee resolution “has at least stopped Georgia’s first move toward accessing water in Tennessee. But ... this is not the last time we will have to deal with this. Clearly we need to work as partners in trying to solve the issue.”
But he said “we’re not in any way willing to cede any part of our land or other natural resources to satisfy Georgia’s needs in Atlanta.”
Tennessee-American Water Co. President John Watson, whose company provides Chattanooga with water, said there would be engineering challenges involved in moving millions of gallons of Tennessee River water to Atlanta.
He said the investor-owned utility’s Chattanooga plant can treat 65 million gallons of water per day. He said Atlanta uses as much as 480 million gallons of water daily. No facility exists today that can pump the necessary water, let alone pipelines to carry it, he said.
“What we’re talking about is something that would be almost akin to building nine more of these treatment plants with multiple pipes going over mountains, using tremendous amounts of energy,” he said.
Mr. Watson said the “real question” is whether the water would be treated at the Tennessee River or if raw water would be pumped to Atlanta and treated there. Moreover, new sources of water are not the only solution to Atlanta’s problems, Mr. Watson said.
“Multiple solutions need to be reviewed, studied — conservation, desalination, reuse, recycling, low-flow devices, growth management,” he said.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...