ATLANTA — Metro Atlanta has one of the smallest water supplies for a metro area in the country. Whenever there is a drought, or Lake Lanier’s water level is low, that’s a big concern to local leaders.
Nearly 200 years ago, North Georgia had one more major river. But a mathematician got the state’s border with Tennessee wrong by about a mile, cutting out the water source.
During droughts, state lawmakers look at the dispute as an opportunity to get more water for the region.
In 1826, University of Georgia mathematician James Camak was hired by Georgia’s governor to mark the state’s boundary with Tennessee.
Georgia’s northern border was the 35th parallel of latitude.
Kennesaw State University professor Dan Branham said Georgia’s governor at the time didn’t want to pay for modern survey equipment, opting for a sextant, a less expensive nautical tool.
“He did a pretty incredible job based upon the equipment,” Branham said.
It took Camak nearly a month to find what he thought was the northwest corner of the state. Camak was a little more than a mile south of the 35th parallel.
Georgia’s state line currently sits feet from the Tennessee River when it should be running through it.
“That would have put the corner actually roughly inside or on the west bank of the Tennessee River,” Branham said. “Currently, that area is totally underwater.”
Over the years state leaders said this is a critical mistake because of North Georgia’s water needs.
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“Of the Top 10 metropolitan, to the Top 10 largest regions in the country, we’re the largest region on the smallest water supply,” said Katherine Zitsch, director of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.
Zitsch said granite across North Georgia makes it tough to drill for groundwater, so metro Atlanta relies on reservoirs and rain.
“The vast majority of our water supply is from the Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River downstream,” Zitsch said.
What makes drought recovery a challenge for North Georgia is our small water basin. Rain must fall in a relatively small thousand-square-mile area for the water to make it into Lake Lanier.
This is a relatively small area compared to the size of the lake. That means it can take months, even years to fill the lake back up after a drought.
“We don’t know whether the drought is two months, two years, five years. Once the water is out of Lake Lanier, we can’t get it back,” Zitsch said.
That has state lawmakers regularly renewing the 200-year-old border dispute with Tennessee. KSU professor Branham said Georgia has appealed the location of the state line roughly 14 times.
As recently as 2019, state lawmakers voted to explore the debate but Gov. Brian Kemp vetoed the resolution.
It would take a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to move Georgia’s border.
“So if in the end, Georgia does not get access to any of the water from the Tennessee River, are we in a tough spot?” Severe Weather Team 2 Chief Meteorologist Brad Nitz asked Zitsch.
“No,” Zitsch said. “We are really investing well in this region to make sure that we can continue with that economic growth, to continue to thrive.”
Zitsch told Nitz that metro Atlanta’s population has grown by more than a million people in the last two decades, but the region is using less water because of plumbing and technology upgrades.
But conserving water, even after a drought is over, is the most important thing we can do to protect our reservoirs.
“Our lawns can be green, and we can think we’re out of a drought, but the reservoir itself hasn’t refilled,” Zitsch said. “We have to stay with conservation and efficiency until the lake refills.”
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