In drought, water found: next door

Times Staff Writer

C. Barton Crattie, a Georgia land surveyor, did not expect to start a border war when he penned a newspaper article about a flawed 1818 survey that placed his state a mile below the Tennessee River.

The mistake in calculating Georgia's northern corner, he figured, was just an odd historical footnote, an interesting digression for those who fret that the drought-stricken state will soon run out of water. "Unfortunately for . . . Georgia," he wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "the corner is where the corner is."

The corner, however, is now the subject of Georgia state legislation: Sen. David Shafer and Rep. Harry Geisinger introduced bills to set up a commission to proclaim the states' "definite and true boundary lines." With an extreme water shortage in the north, legislators believe Georgians should no longer forfeit their right to the Tennessee River.

The resolution has provoked ridicule and scorn on the other side of the border. Tennessee state senators have proposed settling the matter with a game of football -- a dig at Georgia's recent scores. Others have threatened to fire rifles from Lookout Mountain.

"If they really do try to pull this off, we will do whatever we have to do to defend ourselves," said Howell Moss, the mayor of Tennessee's Marion County, noting that the disputed milewide strip of land has been an accepted part of his state for nearly 200 years. "My constituents have no desire to live in Georgia."

The bill, supported by almost all of Georgia's legislators, would commission legislators from Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina to investigate claims that the border is actually 5,600 feet north -- meaning the Tennessee River cuts into a corner of Georgia.

The survey in the early 1800s was conducted by Georgia math professor James Camak using a cheap sextant and unsuitable astronomical tables, said Crattie, who serves on the board of the Surveyors Historical Society. Modern mapping techniques show that the professor erroneously put the Georgia-Tennessee boundary south of Congress' mandate "at the 35th degree of north latitude" -- the 35th parallel -- Crattie said.

Still, Crattie thinks a legislative commission to study the border would be a waste of taxpayers' money.

"Just because we have more sophisticated equipment now, we can't just go around moving borders," said Crattie, who lives in Lookout Mountain, Ga., near the Tennessee border. "If they take this too far, there'll be neighbors shooting everyone all the time."

Shafer, who introduced the bill, said the correct boundary was legally set by Congress and could not be altered by a mathematician using faulty equipment. "It's time for the boundary to be accurately surveyed," he said. "The water flows through both of our states. I expect that Georgia and Tennessee could come to a water-sharing arrangement."

This is not the first time Georgia legislators have attempted to rectify the mistake.

According to Shafer's bill, efforts go as far back as 1887, when the state directed its governor to communicate with the governor of Tennessee to settle the boundary. Similar resolutions were approved in the 1940s and 1970s, the bill says.

This year, Georgia's water plight is more urgent, as a drought of historic proportions afflicts the northern part of the state.

A federal appellate court panel ruled this month that Georgia could not withdraw as much water as it had planned to from the reservoir that supplies rapidly developing metropolitan Atlanta.

Still, Georgia receives little sympathy from its neighbors.

Tennessee state Sen. Andy Berke, who represents the disputed southeastern portion of that state, rebuked Georgia legislators for spending time debating "irresponsible land grabs."

"It's easy to say, 'Let's just take other people's water,' " he said. "The responsible thing to do is conserve what water we have."

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jenny.jarvie@latimes.com

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