River Runs Through Georgia-Tennessee Fight For nearly 200 years, Georgia and Tennessee have shared a border. But now Georgia legislators are poised to order a survey of the border they think will show that it should move a mile-and-a-half. What's on the land Georgia would gain? Access to the Tennessee River — at a time when water is especially precious in drought-stricken north Georgia. John Sepulvado from member station WGPB in Rome, Ga., reports.
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River Runs Through Georgia-Tennessee Fight

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River Runs Through Georgia-Tennessee Fight

River Runs Through Georgia-Tennessee Fight

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For the past 190 years, Georgia and Tennessee have shared a common border without problems. But now, Georgia is facing a perpetual shortage of water, and lawmakers there are looking longingly at the Tennessee River. They're considering a resolution that would move the state's border one mile north to the river.

John Sepulvado reports from member station WGPB in Rome, Georgia.

JOHN SEPULVADO: To understand why Georgia lawmakers feel they have a strong claim to the Tennessee River, you have to go way back to the year 1818. That's when the North Georgia line was set.

A surveyor team was dispatched to mark the border among the steep red hills and tall green trees. And almost from the get-go, things were messed up, says Georgia State Senator David Shafer.

Senator DAVID SHAFER (Republican, Georgia): Oh, apparently, there was a forest fire. Apparently, there was trouble with the Indians. Apparently, there was faulty equipment, but I think there's very little doubt that the survey is erroneous that they misparted(ph) the border about a mile south of where it actually is.

SEPULVADO: There's plenty of evidence supporting Shafer. Most recently, an article last month in the American Surveyor magazine - it reports that back in the early 19th century, surveyors stopped just short of the 35th parallel defined by the Georgia Constitution and recognized by the U.S. government as the state's northern border.

And lawmakers in North Carolina which also borders northern Georgia have agreed in the past there was a surveying goof. So after 190 years, Shafer has authored a resolution that would push Georgia's northern border up one mile.

Sen. SHAFER: Well, over the last 190 years there have been repeated efforts to resolve this erroneous survey. The Georgia general assembly has passed resolutions on at least four other occasions urging that this matter be resolved.

SEPULVADO: And this resolution has become urgent for the state. Recently, Georgia lost a federal court case resulting in more water leaving the state for Alabama and Florida.

And to give Georgia's claim some teeth, Shafer's resolution would create a commission with the power to negotiate and if need be, sue Tennessee to reset the northern state line.

Yet throughout this, Shafer says water rights are a secondary issue. But officials in Tennessee look at Georgia's drought and they look at Shafer's resolution and then they fire back, saying this is nothing more than a Georgia play for Tennessee water.

Representative HENRY FINCHER (Democrat, Tennessee): Water is going to become such a hot-button issue, I think.

SEPULVADO: That's Tennessee State Democratic Representative Henry Fincher. He's the co-sponsor of a water study bill in that state.

Rep. FINCHER: On the one hand, it's an interesting historical matter because we're reopening on an 1818 dispute that's been settled for a very long time. But the mere fact that the Georgia legislature would try this land grab, if you will, to get to Tennessee's water supply, water's going to be an issue.

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SEPULVADO: And as for residents living on the Georgia-Tennessee line, many like Tennessee native Bob Ellison(ph) seemed baffled by the controversy.

Ellison says this area near the Tennessee River is, in his words, a good southern community. And that if Georgia needs the water so badly, the state should just ask to borrow some.

Mr. BOB ELLISON (Resident, Georgia-Tennessee Line): People are probably more hospitable, you know, being that we are a Deep South town. If they want to do something like that on a temporary basis, you know, that would be fine with me; just not a permanent type basis.

SEPULVADO: But officials in both states say it's not as easy as loaning a neighbor the proverbial cup of sugar. And as is the case with many serious disputes among neighbors, Georgia officials warn this could end up in court especially if Tennessee doesn't act friendly.

For NPR News, I'm John Sepulvado in Rome, Georgia.

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