Water Wars

Georgia Governor Says North Carolina and Tennessee Can Keep Their Wrongfully- Possessed Land

During this year’s legislative session, Georgia Legislature overwhelmingly passed House Resolution 51, which calls for the creation of a commission to negotiate the re-drawing of Georgia’s northern border with Tennessee and North Carolina. As lawmakers and some historians and surveyors have pointed out, Georgia’s borders were incorrectly drawn which means the state should actually own more territory to its north – territory that is currently owned by Tennessee and North Carolina. Georgia would really like that land right about now as it offers the ability to access new water resources, which would ameliorate some of the problems the state is experiencing as it fights the “Water Wars” with Florida and Alabama.

Unfortunately for the Legislature, Governor Kemp vetoed House Resolution 51 showing his disinterest in the idea of re-drawing the border. The reason is simple: Tennessee and North Carolina have no interest themselves in giving Georgia more land. Particularly valuable, water-bearing land. This stance differs from Georgia’s previous governor, Nathan Deal, who signed similar legislation even though he too had little interest in opening a new water battle.

We’ve written about how silly and counterproductive this idea is, not least because many state boundaries are historically inaccurate and no state wants to voluntarily give up any land. While the decades-long battle between those two states (and Alabama) is known as the “Water Wars,” it helps to think of the situation as less of a “war” and more as a drawn -out maneuvering battle. That’s because ultimately the winner won’t be the state that overpowers the others, but the state that best convinces others that it should have more water; or, that it shouldn’t have water taken away.

That convincing involves showing a good-faith effort to conserve water and come up with innovative solutions. Unless the states can themselves come up with an agreement (which they’ve shown they can’t), it will be the courts and Congress that decide which state wins each new battle for water.

As we speak, Georgia and Florida are in the middle of litigation at the US Supreme Court over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. While sympathy isn’t necessarily going to be what decides the case, it sure goes a long way when nine justices are trying to weigh various factors in deciding whether to cap Georgia’s water use in favor of Florida. Georgia will look much more sympathetic if it can show that not only does Atlanta need the water, but the state is being proactive in reducing needless consumption by people and crops.

And it may need that sympathy. Last year, the Supreme Court rejected the special master’s recommendation that the suit between Florida and Georgia (appropriately titled Florida v. Georgia) be dismissed since, in the special master’s judgment, Florida couldn’t guarantee that any cap on Georgia’s water would benefit Florida. In a 5-4 decision, the Court showed some sympathy for Florida, asking the special master to gather more evidence to show exactly how a cap would benefit Florida (in the time since, a new special master was appointed and Justice Kennedy was replaced by Justice Kavanaugh).

Continuing to pass resolutions and bills that attempt to usurp or negotiate the taking of land from additional states is not behavior that elicits much sympathy. Even if Georgia prevails in the current litigation, water battles between Georgia and surrounding states will inevitably continue. That means the state will continually face the need to show others that it’s making a good-faith effort to protect and conserve regional water resources.


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