WASHINGTON — If Georgia officials persist in their effort to claim a slice of the Tennessee River by moving the state’s border north, a decision in the matter ultimately could land at the U.S. Supreme Court, political and legal experts said.
That court has the jurisdiction to hear cases between states, and border wars are nothing new, said Peter Appel, an associate professor at the University of Georgia School of Law who studies water rights and property issues.
“The first course of action would be (for Georgia) to try and negotiate with Tennessee, but Tennessee has made it clear they’re not interested,” Mr. Appel said. “If they wanted to pursue this legally, the most obvious course of action would be to petition the Supreme Court.”
The Supreme Court has within the last decade ruled on a boundary dispute between New York and New Jersey and another between Maryland and Virginia, he said. It now is settling an ongoing water battle between North and South Carolina in a lawsuit filed last year.
Georgia, reeling from a historic drought, is seeking to access the Tennessee River. State officials have pointed out that Congress designated the 35th parallel as the border with Tennessee, but an erroneous 1818 survey placed the state line in its current location 1.1 miles south of that. If the border were along the 35th parallel, portions of the river would be in Georgia.
The Georgia House and Senate earlier this month passed separate resolutions to create a commission to resurvey and redraw the border.
Tennessee officials have dismissed the Georgia lawmakers’ claims, with Gov. Phil Bredesen calling the resolutions political “grandstanding.”
“We’re not going to change the borders of Tennessee, and I think most Georgians recognize that,” he said.
Georgia state Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, a leading proponent of the resolutions, did not return messages seeking comment. He has said Georgia has a “historical and ecological” claim to the water, because it never ratified the 1818 survey.
Mr. Appel said if Georgia officials decided to seek relief through the Supreme Court, the court would appoint a “special master” to act as a fact-finder.
That master would collect evidence, hear expert testimony, and issue a report and recommendation to the court.
“The states then file objections to that report, and the Supreme Court hears their arguments,” Mr. Appel said. “Then they issue an opinion, and it’s a final decision.”
Mr. Appel said both sides appear to have good cases.
“On one hand, where the boundary was set in 1818, the states have been living with it for all that time,” he said. “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.”
Watershed Transfer unlikely
Experts said Georgia also may appeal to the Tennessee Valley Authority to consider an interbasin transfer of water, which must be approved by the state.
Tennessee has 23 such agreements, where water is moved from one river basin to another, mostly to supply municipal water systems.
Gil Francis, a spokesman for TVA, which manages the Tennessee River, said the amount of water Georgia would need to support its burgeoning population growth would make it one of the largest, if not the largest, interbasin transfers ever.
Georgia officials have cited a 2004 TVA study that indicated the state could take 264,000 gallons of water a day from the Tennessee River without negative impacts, but Mr. Francis said this year’s drought has rendered that study moot.
“You could end up with two water basins short of water, instead of just one,” he said. “The assumption that there’s extra water is not quite correct.”
Any interbasin transfer request would require a lengthy environmental review that could take months or even years, even if Tennessee were to give the green light, which is doubtful, Mr. Francis said.
TAKING THE FIGHT TO WASHINGTON
Congress may be called in to help settle the dispute, said Michael Greve, an expert on federalism with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning research institution. But he said Congress may not have oversight authority on this matter.
“The general rule in 19th century cases is that redrawing a boundary requires congressional consent, but the more precise demarcation of a boundary, or its adjustment in light of past mistakes, does not,” he said.
If Congress does intervene, Tennessee lawmakers appear reluctant to get involved.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., called the rhetoric exchanged by both sides “sophomoric” and “juvenile.”
“The whole discussion to me has been at such a low level that it’s been an embarrassment to actually read,” he said.
Water resource policy decisions need to be made with long-term perspectives, not short-term needs, he said. Georgia critics have said the state’s water shortages are because of its unmanaged growth. More than 1 million people have moved to the state in the last five years.
“I am cognizant of the fact that we’re going through a period of time where the world is warming right now,” Sen. Corker said. “That is putting tremendous stress on water resources around the world. You would never want to ever make a decision regarding water resources over some short-term economic issue.”
Trey Hood, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the resolutions may be a ploy by Georgia lawmakers to get Tennessee officials to the negotiating table, rather than risk expensive litigation.
And with Tennessee showing no inclination to back down, Dr. Hood said he sees no resolution in sight.
“I’m sure Tennessee doesn’t like any of this, and I wouldn’t either, if I were Tennessee,” he said. “I doubt many people seriously think Georgia is going to successfully annex the land.”