Georgia got great news Tuesday in the long-running “water wars.” A lawyer assigned by the U.S. Supreme Court to make a recommendation in Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia ruled in our favor, saying our neighbors to the south had failed to prove that capping the water Georgia draws from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers would be effective at solving their problems.
It is possible Florida will now try to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the lawyer, Ralph Lancaster, noted repeatedly in his recommendation that he could not recommend actions by the Corps because it was not a party to the suit. And there’s a chance, believed to be small, that the Supreme Court would go against his recommendation. But as things stand today, Georgia’s days of playing defense against Florida in the question of how much water should flow south from Lake Lanier all the way down to the Apalachicola Bay appear to be over.
Now it’s time to play offense.
As I have mentioned before, Georgia was endangered by an adverse decision regarding Lake Lanier in large part because of a surveyor’s mistake more than 200 years ago. That mistake set Georgia’s border with Tennessee ever so slightly too far south — just far enough that the mighty Tennessee River lies beyond our northernmost edge. It’s a mistake Georgia has sought repeatedly over the past two centuries to correct, without any cooperation from our neighbors to the north. (To read more about this, click here.)
The Tennessee River, at least at the point where it should dip down into Georgia, flows at an extremely high volume. The Tennessee Valley Authority in 2004 found it had excess capacity of 1 billion gallons per day. That’s far more than Georgia would need to help alleviate its water issues. Tapping into it in extreme northwest Georgia in order to help metro Atlanta would be controversial, as it would require an interbasin transfer of water. But it is doable, and it could prove necessary someday.
After Tuesday’s recommendation by Lancaster, it may seem the urgency to do so has lessened. Not so. The time to settle the question of our border with Tennessee, and riparian rights to the Tennessee River, is now, when our backs are not up against the proverbial wall because of litigation with Florida (or Alabama) over the Chattahoochee-Flint. It is worth noting that Lancaster just last month suggested revisiting this idea, which might carry more weight now that he has also ruled in our favor against Florida. And there is plenty of precedent for adjusting state borders due to improved technology; North Carolina and South Carolina recently did so willingly.
If Tennessee won’t agree willingly, Georgia should be ready to ask the Supreme Court to do the job.