Border Wars: Georgia Fights for Tennessee Water

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For years, the state of Georgia has been in desperate need of water. Droughts and water rationing today are commonplace, and Georgia may have a legitimate claim to a section of real estate in Tennessee that would give the state partial rights to the waters of the Tennessee River. That will be for the attorneys to hammer out and for Congress to ultimately decide. But what I find even more thought-provoking is what would happen to the potentially hundreds of thousands of Tennessee residents who would wake up one morning to find they are now Georgians, without having moved one inch.

Back in 1796, the common border of Tennessee and Georgia was determined by the United States Congress. It was to be drawn along the 35th parallel of north latitude. In 1818, two surveyors were charged with mapping this out: one from Tennessee and the other from Georgia. Due to human error, antiquated equipment, or just haphazard surveying of the treacherous terrain, the border was actually mapped one mile south of where it was intended. In 1826, James Camack, a Georgia mathematician who was one of the original surveyors, admitted the error. Three attempts were made to move the border, but none succeeded. That one-mile error may seem insignificant after nearly 190 years of relative acceptance on both sides, but it has now become very significant and critical to the state of Georgia in general, and to the City of Atlanta in particular.

Atlanta is one of the few cities on the continent that’s not built on a water source capable of sustaining it. One of the region’s main reservoirs, Lake Lanier, now stands at 15 feet below normal levels. Given the urban sprawl of the city, the commodity of water has become very precious. Today that one-mile difference would provide the state of Georgia with ownership rights to a small portion of the Tennessee River, and the water so badly needed. Tennessee officials call the move absurd, even musing about dusting off the muskets, but to Georgia legislators it is desperately serious, and they will go to court to correct the error.

So: What if this seemingly far-fetched border shift actually does come to pass? How would the affected Tennesseans’ lives change? Of course there would be the normal nuisances like new phone numbers, drivers’ licenses, and insurance cards. New power and phone companies with which to deal. Forming new allegiances to the Falcons rather than the Titans. (OK, well, that part will never happen!)

But the data suggests that the day-to-day lives of these new Georgians would change for the worse. First, the value of their homes would drop. The median home price in Tennessee is $163,000. In Georgia, it is

 $150,000. Further, as Travis H. Brown points out in How Money Walks, they would be pushed from a state with no state income tax to one with a 6% tax; from a state with a state & local tax burden of 7.7% to one with 9%; and from a state with taxes per capita of $2,707 to one that levies an average of $3,222. And finally, on a scale from 1 to 50 (with 1 having the worst national tax burden) Tennessee is ranked nearly the lowest at # 48, to Georgia’s #33.

Clearly, this issue is not simply a story about the water. It is also about the potentially hundreds of thousands of people whose lives will be changed forever. That makes it a story well worth following.


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