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Tom Baxter

In Tennessee boundary dispute, a river of lawyers’ fees

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.


Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.



  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 2, 2013 11:08 am

    {{“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.”}}

    …Well stated, Mr. Baxter.

    Unfortunately, with this group of moronic clowns in charge, it is highly-likely that we will NEVER see SERIOUS solutions proposed to attempt to resolve the problem of rising demand for water in the fast-growing Atlanta region and its North Georgia environs.

    If Georgia really wanted to use the water resources of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Georgia could offer to pay-in to obtain those resources like any sane entity might otherwise do, especially after just coming out of decades-long Water Wars with Alabama and Florida.

    It looks like Georgia is pursuing this approach just so some politically well-connected law firms can get more billable hours at the expense of the taxpayers.Report

  2. Engineer April 2, 2013 2:25 pm

    Actually the Tennessee flows out of Nickajack Dam then into Alabama…but the point remains.Report

  3. Burroughston Broch April 2, 2013 8:41 pm

    It’s interesting that no one seems to talk about withdrawing water from the Savannah River. Georgia has direct access to it, unlike the Tennessee River. Even though the Savannah at Lake Hartwell only has an average of 3600cfs flow, that’s 2.5 times the long term median flow of about 1400cfs of the Chattahoochee at Morgan Falls.Report

    1. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 3, 2013 8:53 pm

      Burroughston Broch, April 2, 2013 at 8:41 pm-

      {{“It’s interesting that no one seems to talk about withdrawing water from the Savannah River.”}}

      …It’s interesting, but not surprising as our notably-incompentent state leadership couldn’t plan or manage anything remotely infrastructure-related if their lives (or even moreso, OUR LIVES) depended on it.

      Given Georgia’s recent increasingly-severe water supply problems, particularly with regards to the fast-growing major continental population center that is the Atlanta region, it would seem that the State of Georgia would be utilizing ALL possible options when it comes to water sources.

      Not only should the State of Georgia be practicing extreme water conservation measures at this increasingly sober and desperate juncture (extreme restrictions if not outright bans on all residential car washing and residential lawn watering), but the State of Georgia should also feverishly be bringing outline new sources of water such as small new manmade lakes and reservoirs for water storage, and the SERIOUS consideration of interbasin transfers from the Savannah River Valley and the Tennessee Valley Authority to the Atlanta region as warranted.Report

  4. Tom Baxter April 2, 2013 9:01 pm

    Even better point. Thanks, Engineer. (Corrected now).Report

  5. JBVick April 25, 2013 12:19 am

    Tom: The Obama Administration showed Alexander and Corker who really has the big guns last week when the FBI and IRS  raided and padlocked Pilot Oil HQ’s in Knoxville. 
    Consider that Pilot sells more fossil fuel than any other retailer in the country. And that Pilot Oil and its employees are the biggest donors to the Republican party in Tenn. 
    Never mind the fact that federal agents raided the family business of the sitting Republican Gov (caught totally by surprise) 
    what is really fascinating is that the CEO of Pilot ,  Jimmy Haslam,  was Corkers college roommate, his largest donor and his campaign Finance Chair 
    but the best part is that the founder and Chairman of the Board of Pilot Oil,  82 yr old  “Big Jim” Haslam is Lamar Alexanders Honorary Campaign Finance Chairman for his final reelection bid  for the US Senate. 

    I’d say that Obama just took a leg up on that “long running dispute” you mentioned above 🙂Report


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