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Thirsty lawmakers cast eyes to Tennessee River

ATLANTA - Georgia's longstanding water wars with Florida and Alabama may be about to ignite on a new front.

The House and Senate passed identically worded resolutions Wednesday calling for the creation of a commission to fix Georgia's borders with Tennessee and North Carolina, which the measures assert were set incorrectly by a flawed survey conducted back in 1818.

The true point where the three states come together should be more than a mile farther north. According to the resolution, that would extend Georgia's northern boundary into the Tennessee River, giving the drought-ravaged state a legal claim to a huge watering hole.

"The Tennessee River is a massive body of water," said Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, the Senate resolution's chief sponsor. "It would take a small percentage of that river to meet our water needs for decades to come."

Elected officials in Tennessee from state legislators to the mayor of Chattanooga have dismissed the Georgia resolutions since they were introduced several weeks ago as political grandstanding that is unlikely to ever amount to anything.

Any attempt by Georgia to gain access to water Tennessee officials consider to be entirely located within their state is all but certain to launch a protracted legal battle.

Shafer said Georgia's political leaders should be willing to endure a lengthy process if it becomes necessary because he sees securing water from the Tennessee River as a long-term solution to a problem that isn't going away.

"This has nothing to do with the drought," he said. "All we can do about that is conserve. But there are going to be twice as many people in Georgia in 20 years as there are today."

Shafer's arguments went over well in the Senate, where his resolution was approved unanimously.

But the measure ran into some opposition in the House on Wednesday, before winning passage by a comfortable 136-26 margin.

Several House members, including some from districts along Georgia's northern border, argued that the resolutions aren't worth pursuing because the other states won't go along with moving their borders without a fight.

"What happens if Tennessee and North Carolina ignore this resolution?" asked Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. "We probably should not abandon other efforts to solve our water problems in Georgia in reliance upon this."

Rep. Brian Thomas said passing the resolutions would lend ammunition to the argument that metro Atlanta is out to grab water from river systems in less populous regions.

That fear was the driving force behind intense opposition last month among lawmakers from outside of the metro region to approval of a statewide water plan.

"Shouldn't people who have suspicions about metro Atlanta ... be concerned about this kind of proposition?" asked Thomas, D-Lawrenceville.

Even though the House and Senate passed identical resolutions, one of the measures still will have to clear both legislative chambers before it can go to Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature.