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Tennessee River issue flowing in Georgia legislature
Assembly wants to resolve border dispute to solve water woes
0304River Carver
Brad Carver

The issue involves a corner of Northwest Georgia, but an Atlanta lawyer believes a water resolution out of the Tennessee-Georgia border dispute would have statewide impact.

“Basically, we could drought-proof the state of Georgia, and that’s the way we take care of the fluctuations in Lake Lanier,” said Brad Carver, who has spearheaded the move.

“What this project would propose to do is keep Lake Lanier full ... in a way that, without the Tennessee River, is going to be impossible to do, going forward.”

Georgia has turned to its neighbor to the north in recent years as a way to solve longstanding drinking water issues in fast-growing metro Atlanta, particularly as “water wars” with Alabama and Florida had been hung up in the courts.

The dispute stems from an 1818 survey that improperly placed the Georgia-Tennessee boundary one mile south of the mutually agreed-upon border at the 35th parallel.

Tennessee ratified the incorrect boundary, but Georgia never did, Carver has said.

A bill in the Georgia General Assembly would, in effect, allow Tennessee to keep 66 square miles and Georgia to take in 1« acres and give access to the Tennessee River.

Gaining traction, the bill has moved into the state Senate after the House voted for the measure 171-2 on Feb. 12.

Carver, who is with the Hall Booth Smith firm in Atlanta, has championed the move for several years.

He envisions a pipeline with a permitted capacity of 264 million gallons per day flowing water to Georgia, especially when the Tennessee River basin is at one of its frequent flood stages.

The project ultimately could help Hall County’s proposed Glades Farm and other large reservoirs “get off the ground,” Carver said.

“They could be kept full with Tennessee River water,” he said.

“It would actually be a good augmentation and good storage location. ... I think that reservoirs are complementary to an interbasin transfer like this.”

State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, who voted for the measure, said one upside to the resolution is that it doesn’t involve Tennessee residents — they would remain in that state, which doesn’t have an income tax.

“That has been the problem with some of the past years’ legislation,” he said. “Now, whether Tennessee is going to accept this — that’s the question.”

Dave Smith, spokesman in Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s office, issued a terse statement when pressed on the matter last week: “The governor will continue to protect the interests and resources of Tennessee.”

Travis Brickey, a spokesman for the Knoxville-based Tennessee Valley Authority, said, “Currently, this is an issue between the state of Georgia and Tennessee, and TVA would only get involved if an agreement is reached and then a TVA permit is submitted for an interbasin transfer.”

Until then, TVA “will continue to manage the Tennessee River like we always do,” Brickey said.

Georgia’s governor, Nathan Deal, has not pitched support or opposition to the proposal, but he has said he has met with the lawyers behind it.

The issue “is one that I think has some merit attached to it,” he said.

Carver said that several Georgia leaders had “informal discussions with Tennessee legislators prior to the filing of this legislation.

“They were informed of this possible settlement position, but (House Resolution) 4 is the only way to formalize an offer to the state of Tennessee to set up continued negotiations.”

If the parties agree, an “interstate compact” then would need to go to Congress for approval, the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association has met with Carver on the issue and given its support, said Joanna Cloud, executive director.

“As we have seen the past few years, it is not just population growth in metro Atlanta that is pressuring our freshwater supply,” she said.

“There are several different factors south of the metro area and in other states that are putting significant pressure on our freshwater storage capabilities.”

While “more and better conservation is certainly an ongoing objective for all of us, having another supply of freshwater would be of significant benefit to us as well,” Cloud said.

“I think the ultimate solution to water issues in our state is going to be a hybrid approach involving conservation, supply and storage, and we should investigate alternatives in all of those areas.”

The plan has its naysayers, including Sally Bethea, executive director of the Atlanta-based Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

“It seems to us that some Georgia legislators keep trying to sell something to folks in Tennessee that they don’t want to buy,” she said.

“This is little more than grandstanding at a time when we should be looking at viable water supply options for metro Atlanta.”

She believes, for example, that, as many other lake advocates do, that raising the full pool of Lake Lanier by 2 feet should be seriously studied. The lake’s summer full pool is 1,071 feet above sea level.

“Let’s look at dredging Lake Lanier. We know that it’s available for some water supply,” Bethea said. “... And there’s very real savings in doing more with water efficiency.”

Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said she believes that raising the water level or agreeing with Tennessee “sound like simple answers, but when you get into these water (matters), it’s never simple.”

One thing’s for sure, she said, and that is “we don’t need any more lawsuits.”