Georgia lawmakers eyeing Tennessee River once more

Authored By James Harrison

To get to the tristate corner, you have to park at State Line Cemetery on a hill above Nickajack Lake. 

A brief walk on a wooded path leads you to the corner.  

Without any signage or display, three knee-high stone walls rise from the forest floor, converging upon the border of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia as defined in an 1818 survey and approved by Congress. A small concrete pillar marks the spot, topped with a rusting bronze survey marker that distinguishes the location of the border. 

A handful of homes are nearby, and through the woods you can glance at the lake. But for the most part, the post distinguishing the border of three states lies in the middle of nothing. 

Georgia lawmakers want the post moved. 

On Monday, senators from the Peach State approved a resolution that suggests shifting a miniscule section of its border with Tennessee, starting at the tristate corner, to include a portion of Nickajack’s shoreline. The move would entitle Georgia to draw water from the Tennessee River, which snakes through both Tennessee and Alabama but leaves their drought-ridden neighbor missing out on its valuable resource by a matter of feet. 

State Sen. David Shafer, who represents a Duluth-based district 149 miles southeast from the contested state line, is the author of the new bill. The legislation, like many similar items that have preceded it, blames the surveyors for bumbling their measurements when establishing the state line nearly 200 years ago, marking it as being a mile farther south from where it should have been-right along the 35th parallel of latitude.

Multiple attempts by to reach Shafer, a six-term senator, regarding the proposal were unsuccessful. 

Georgia has no real desire for any land that it might gain through Shafer’s plan-its sights are solely set on the waters of Nickajack. The state, parched by drought in recent years, has seen Atlanta’s water supply repeatedly threatened by a lack of rainfall. Approximately 80 percent of the state is currently listed as experiencing drought conditions. 

The idea behind Shafer’s proposal isn’t anything new, either. 

Disputes over Georgia’s border with Tennessee stem back to the 19th century, with overtures on moving the line coming out of Atlanta in the 1890s, 1905, 1915, 1922, 1941, 1947, 1971 and 2008, according to a paper written on the subject in 2008 by five members of the Tennessee Bar Association.

The proposals also have a history of being panned in Tennessee.

In order for any border-related legislation to move forward, any legislative item would need to be signed off on by legislatures of both states. Most recently in Tennessee, House lawmakers unanimously shot down a measure that would have signaled an agreement with proposed legislation from Georgia regarding the line five years ago.

That same year, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield responded to the Georgia measure by sending a staffer decked in a coonskin cap to the state Capitol in Atlanta to deliver a truckload of water on behalf of the city of Chattanooga.

Littlefield declared the stunt “Give Our Georgia Friends a Drink Day.” 

On Tuesday, Shafer’s bill was more subtlety snubbed by Gov. Bill Haslam.

“The governor will continue to protect the interests and resources of Tennessee,” a spokesman for Haslam said in an emailed statement reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Still, Georgia lawmakers could opt to sue Tennessee for the land and seek to have the dispute resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the event of arguing over a mistake of surveyors who likely used rods, chains and compasses to determine a state line, as opposed to modern GPS technology, Georgia would have to make the case for why it was entitled to a small sliver of land instead of the entirety of land between Alabama and North Carolina.

Robert Parsley, an attorney with Miller & Martin and co-author of the Bar Association’s 2008 paper on the border dispute, said that because of the long-term nature of Georgia’s border arguments with Tennessee, the new proposal might be challenged legally for only focusing on such a small portion of the line-1.5 miles total. 

“I think it complicates Georgia’s position because [the bill] really focuses in on what the real controversy is-water and access to water,” Parsley said. “It’s not as much about where the state line should be. That could complicate the case in a way that perhaps places a greater burden on Georgia to persuade the court this is something it should hear.” 

Crews Townsend, also an attorney with Miller & Martin and also a co-author of the paper, suggested that despite the bill’s instruction for Georgia’s attorney general to sue, past measures that were brought to that level didn’t move forward. 

“I would be surprised if Georgia were to file a lawsuit,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s completely farfetched, you never know. It has happened with other states. What’s interesting here is that the area that has been in dispute covers several highly populated areas, but what Georgia is proposing right now would take just a little portion of Nickajack Lake.”

It’s also difficult to know if the line, as originally drawn, would have placed the river within Georgia’s boundaries before Nickajack’s existence. Despite coming mere feet away from the Georgia line, Nickajack Lake didn’t almost reach Georgia until Tennessee Valley Authority’s construction of Nickajack Dam, completed in 1967.

And although moving the state line would prove to be a major undertaking for Georgia, negotiating with TVA and other federal authorities regarding the withdrawing of water from navigable waterways would be an additional issue.

The resolution is awaiting a vote in the Georgia House.