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Battles over rivers, boundaries are nothing new

POSTED: October 5, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Georgia has a history of boundary battles with its neighbors. The most recent scrimmage was with Tennessee, which some Georgia legislators wanted to adjust its boundary to take advantage of that state's water resources.

The Georgians say a surveying mistake many years ago gave Tennessee more territory than the two states originally agreed on. A change in the boundary probably won't happen.

Georgia also several years ago skirmished with South Carolina over the eastern boundary, but the courts settled that case.

More interesting is the Georgia-Alabama boundary, particularly where the Chattahoochee River divides the two states. That borderline also has bearing on the Georgia-Tennessee case because the error in that line apparently occurred during the survey of the Georgia-Alabama line.

It's somewhat unusual that the Georgia-Alabama boundary along the Chattahoochee is the river's high mark on its western side. In many cases when boundaries are fixed along rivers, they are considered at the midpoint of the streams. Much of Georgia's border with South Carolina is the middle of the Savannah River.

Georgia's territory once ran westward all the way to the Mississippi River, taking in what are now the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Georgia apparently didn't want all that land and agreed to cede it to the federal government in exchange for the feds running all the Indians out of Georgia. That was in 1802, although it was three decades and much debate later before all the Indians were removed from the state.

Anyway, at that time the state's new western boundary along the Chattahoochee was fixed at the high water mark on what is now the Alabama side. Occasionally Alabama would ask that the boundary be moved to the center of the river, although there apparently hasn't been any recent request.

One of the more serious cases came in the 1840s when John H. Howard built a mill on the west bank of the Chattahoochee under grants from the city of Columbus. A few years earlier, Stephen M. Ingersoll had built a mill in what he thought was Alabama between the high- and low-water marks.

Ingersoll sued Howard when he said Howard's mill dam caused water to back up into his mill. What had to be decided was whether Ingersoll's mill was in Georgia or Alabama.

Alabama courts ruled for Ingersoll, saying the boundary was the river's low-water mark. But the boundary dispute continued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared Georgia owned the entire bed and banks of the Chattahoochee to the high-water mark on the western side. And there it has remained.

Farris Cadle of Garden City, author of "Georgia Land Surveying History and Law," is an expert on Georgia's boundaries. Boundary disputes between states pop up every 20 to 30 years, he says. A boundary commission is appointed, it meets, lawyers give their opinions, but the lines seldom change.
Alabama tried to contest its border with Georgia along the Chattahoochee in 1956. It opposed a Georgia Power dam on the river and wanted the line moved to midstream.

About 20 miles of the Chattahoochee forms the border between Georgia and Florida. Curiously, that boundary is midstream, a wrinkle dating back to a 1783 treaty that determined the boundary between the United States and what was then Spanish Florida. The line runs through Lake Seminole, formed by the Chattahoochee, which becomes the Apalachicola River in Florida.

Could the boundary between Georgia and Alabama figure in the dispute over water allocation among those two states and Florida? Because the Chattahoochee is wholly within Georgia's borders along its line with Alabama, does it affect Alabama's claims on water from the Chattahoochee basin?

Cadle hasn't studied that angle and doesn't know the answer. But that opens up a whole new can of worms, water rights, riparian rights and all that other legal rigmarole.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times, and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle, N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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