Twin resolutions were recently introduced in the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives that would create the Georgia-North Carolina and Georgia-Tennessee Boundary Line Commission to study the legal status of the current state border. The resolution, introduced by Senator David Shafer and Representative Harry Geisinger and others, cites a flawed survey of 1818 of the Georgia-Tennessee line and points out that the actual location of the border has never been agreed upon over the years. The states involved in this dispute have tried several times in the past to resolve this issue, but have had no luck in any of the efforts. The last attempt was in 1971 and 1974. Apparently, they have been content to let the issue lie dormant. Now, however, the issue is back again, this time with some real interest by the Peach State Legislature.
The real reason for this sudden interest in the border is a desparate need for water in the state. Georgia is in the midst of a severe drought, which is classified as extreme to exceptional in the northern part of the state. The Atlanta area of the state was as much as 17 inches behind in rainfall for the past year according to the National Weather Service, and even with above normal rainfall for the remainder of the year, they will stillac be in a water deficit situation. The border, if it had been drawn correctly back in 1818, would place a bend of the mighty Tennessee River within Georgia’s boundaries and give them access to water from this tremendous watershed.
At the heart of the discussion over the border is an admitted error in calculations for the location of the 35th parallel, which was the intended border by legislation creating the states by the U.S. government over 200 years ago. An attempt to locate the boundary was made, first with what was described as a faulty theodolite, and then with an accurate sextant, but using, as it turned out, faulty tables for calculating the location of the parallel. An article in the Surveying Journal, Professional Surveyor Magazine, explores the mystery surrounding the whole episode, including a monument that was placed at the starting point of the survey in 1818. The article includes notes from the original mathmetician, James Camak, who admits, “In 1818, I requested Gov. Rabun to procure such an apparatus as would be necessary to enable me to perform my duties with the greatest possible accuracy. The shortness of the time would not admit of sending abroad for them, & hence I was under the necessity of using such as could be procured at Athens. The instrument, a sextant, was a very good one, of English construction. The situation of the observatory, on the top on a mountain, was favorable to accuracy. But the astronomical tables which I was compelled to use were not such as I could have wished them to be.” The result was a 1.1 mile error that placed the Georgia-Tennessee line below the actual 35th parrallel, the intended legal line for the boundary. Georgia lost over 51 square miles as a result of this error. And now, they don’t have access to precious water of the Tennessee River when they need it.
Senator Shafer contends that this border has been disputed since its inception, with several attempts to resolve it being attempted over the years. The original legislation that set the border is what should define the border according to Shafer, and not a mistaken mathmetician. “The boundary of a state cannot be changed except by consent of the legislatures of the affected states and by Congress,” said Shafer when he introduced the legislation before the Georgia Senate. “A state boundary cannot be changed by a mathematician with a faulty compass or a skittish surveying party afraid of forest fires or Indians.”
The Senator notes that “Tennessee passed a law unilaterally advancing its boundary to the erroneous survey marker” in an opinion piece for OnlineAthens.com. “But,” he continues, “neither the United States Congress nor the Georgia General Assembly ever gave its constitutionally required consent to any change in the original border. Insofar as the supreme law of the land is concerned, the boundary remains unchanged, at the 35th parallel.” He also points out that 6 percent of the water going down the Tennessee is from Georgia watersheds. Shafer does concede that this is not necessarily a short term solution to the current drought. “But a failure to plan for the long term is what got us into the current mess,” he states. “An adequate supply of water is vital to Georgia’s health. We have a duty to secure it, and we cannot let short-term problems distract us from that long-term objective.”
What does Tennessee say about this? They are against it, of course. An article in the Memphis Daily News quotes Tennessee Sen. Andy Berke, whose district includes Chattanooga, as saying about this attempt to change the border, “If they ever tried, the governor, and me, and everybody else would be waiting for them.” The Tennessee Governor, Phil Bredesen, is just as adamant. “We will protect our borders here in Tennessee,” he said with a laugh when asked about the possibility of Georgia trying to change the location of the border.
In the meantime, Georgia continues to be in a deficit situation, though recent rains have brought some relief. The Georgia Drought Unified Comand Joint Information Center has recently allowed swimming pools to be filled again and for residents to hand water their landscapes. If the Georgia Border is eventually changed, those pools could one day be filled with water from the Tennessee River, miles to the north.