Georgia’s quest for a sip of the Tennessee river

State lines bring out natural rivalries. New Yorkers like to pick on New Jersey, and when I lived in Indiana, Kentucky seemed to be the butt of most regional jokes. But here in Tennessee the foe is Georgia, and the scuffle may go to court. Over water.

Not just any water, mind you. We’re talking about the mighty Tennessee river, the waterway that writhes its way through the center of Chattanooga, my fair city. The state of Georgia is prepared to sue Tennessee for a chance to tap the river for Atlanta just 100 miles southeast.

It’s not a new idea, and Georgia is already in a longstanding legal feud with Alabama and Florida  for related reasons.

Creeks and streams in North Georgia feed in to the Tennessee river watershed, but the river itself skirts the boundaries of the Peach State, barely missing its northwest corner before dipping south into Alabama and even a tiny corner of Mississippi before turning north toward the Ohio River. (Eastern water rights mean that they can’t tap it because it doesn’t flow through the state.) I can see why Georgia lawmakers might think that the river is taunting them.

So they’ve unearthed a loophole, a surveying mistake that led to the state line falling just over a mile further south than it should have. Correcting  that 200-year-old mistake would give Georgia that sip of the river that they now crave. Georgia is willing to be magnanimous in correcting that error. They don’t really need most of that land. If Tennessee would give them a small piece of Nickajack Lake, formed by the river, they’d be pleased as punch. Tennessee isn’t budging.

Though the whole thing is serious, there’s plenty of humor, from my perch just north of disputed territory, and no one has started setting up physical battle lines yet. Picking up on Chattanooga’s Civil War history, Wired ran a battle plan for thwarting the Georgian invasion on April 1, which hardly seems coincidental. Recently the Daily Show got in the act this week with its own take on the standoff. Meanwhile there is a real problem here: a resource that seems abundant after a rainy summer like this one, but whose drops become increasingly valuable by the year.