By Tom Baxter
Here’s one way to estimate the chances of getting Tennessee to change its mind and give up a thin strip of its existing territory so Georgia can gain access to the water in the Tennessee River.
Right now, the Tennessee legislature is considering a bill that would end party primaries for U.S. Senate nominees, and give the Republican and Democratic legislative delegations the power to choose their respective nominees. (No doubt there’s an ambitious state legislator somewhere at the bottom of that one.)
On the river issue, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has so far expressed zero interest in changing the state boundaries for Georgia’s convenience. An informal Chattanooga Times poll indicated overwhelming opposition to the idea, which was broached in a resolution passed in the waning days of the Georgia General Assembly.
But you figure, if they’re fools enough to go for the idea of giving up the voters’ right to select their U.S. Senate nominees, we just might be able to talk them out of that land without a fight.
This boundary dispute isn’t a new one. It goes back to a surveyor’s error which gave Tennessee a sliver of territory south of the 35th parallel, which was originally designated as the state boundary. Since 1887, Georgia has passed 10 resolutions calling for the boundary to be redrawn, but this latest one comes with the threat that if Tennessee doesn’t agree to Georgia’s proposal – we’ll let them keep most of the land they already claim, if they’ll give us access to the Tennessee River – we’ll sue in federal court.
Since hollering “law suit” at Tennesseans is like waving a red flag at a bull, that means this latest attempt to slake the thirst of Metro Atlanta could end up being what the decades-long “water wars” with Alabama and Florida turned out to be – a huge bonanza for lawyers.
Speaking of Alabama, it also has a catfish in this fight, because the Tennessee River flows into that state after it passes through Nickajack Lake, where Georgia wants to gain access to the water. Any changes in water levels resulting from our sucking water out of the lake would therefore also affect them.
Where this really gets complicated is that this is also the territory of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which has indicated that it’s going to start paying more attention to the matter.
“It’s not just like the states can agree, because there is a federal statute giving authority over the river to the TVA board,” said TVA CEO Bill Johnson.
To add even more drama, Tennessee’s U.S. senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, are engaged in a long-running dispute with the Obama Administration over the nomination of the only Georgian on the TVA Board of Directors, Dr. Marilyn A. Brown, who teaches at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy. Brown was appointed to fill out the remaining two years of a term in 2010, but her ideas on energy efficiency and climate change roiled the two senators, who used a procedure tactic to block her appointment to a full six-year term earlier this year. Late last month, Obama renominated her, setting up a potential showdown with Alexander and Corker.
Brown, incidentally, was a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on climate change, and she used to live in Tennessee, where she worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Even a Nobel Peace Prize winner couldn’t be expected to resolve a conflict as tangled as this one is shaping up to be, however.
It might at first seem like an elegant solution to our water problems, simply changing the boundary line a little and tapping into a huge water supply. But getting access to that river would involve interbasin transfers in potentially three states, not to mention a National Environmental Policy Act permit. If we really intend to contest a boundary which has been in place since 1818, we’re facing a battle in the U.S. Supreme Court, and sealing the deal would probably involve an act of Congress.
But we can dream, and we might as well, since our state leaders have so far shown little willingness to come to grips with our burgeoning demand for water and come up with serious solutions to the problem. Let legislative resolutions roll down like water, and billable hours like a mighty stream.