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Lanier: How low will it go?

Lake is expected to reach historic low point this week

POSTED: November 30, 2008 12:30 a.m.
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The level of Lake Lanier continues to drop, showing more dry shoreline such as this area in front of Clarks Bridge Park.

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Lake Lanier is approaching a historic moment, but it's not a cause for celebration.

On Dec. 26 last year, Lanier hit 1,050.79 feet above sea level, the lowest point since the reservoir was completed in the late 1950s. Normal full pool is 1,071 feet.

With Georgia mired in drought for a third year, Lanier has failed to rebound during 2008 and is now in exactly the same situation as a year ago.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projected that without significant rain, Lanier will drop below its historic lowest level sometime between Dec. 5 and Dec. 12.

But here's the difference: After the lake hit 1,050.79 last year, it began to slowly rise again. This time, it's likely that the water level will continue to drop.

How much lower will it fall? And when, if ever, will the lake get back up to normal?
Even the experts have no idea.

"It's hard to make predictions," said Lt. Col. Daren Payne, deputy commander of the corps' Mobile district, which manages Lake Lanier.

"With this being a prolonged drought, you could be seeing a couple years before the lake gets up to full pool. On the other hand, if we get a deluge next spring like what they had in the Midwest this year, it's possible it could recover sooner."

The corps issues a forecast every Tuesday, calculating the expected levels of Lanier for the subsequent four weeks. But Payne said the computer models do not factor in rain, because that's a variable that cannot be accurately predicted.

In general terms, though, the next three months are expected to bring less rain than usual.

"Our staff weather guy is not seeing a wetter than normal winter," said Payne.

Even a normal winter would be welcome, according to state climatologist David Stooksbury. "We've been dry for so long that people have forgotten what normal (winter) rainfall is like," he said. "This time of year we should be getting about an inch a week."

That amount would be helpful, he said, but it's not going to make up for a 20-foot deficit.

"Even with normal rainfall this winter and spring, I do not see Lanier back to full pool next summer," he said. "Any rain we get is going to (bring) some improvement in flow. But even with normal rain, we're just not going to get enough water into the basin to fill up the lake."

Stooksbury said he is concerned about the long-term outlook, and he wonders whether what's happening in Georgia is part of an atmospheric shift on a global scale.

He offers an intriguing theory that Georgia may not be in a three-year drought but actually a 10-year drought. The region's previous drought lasted from 1999 through 2002. After a couple of years during which the lake returned to normal and even got above full pool, Georgia slipped back into a drought again.

"Is it possible that this is a continuation of the drought that began 10 years ago, and the tropical storm seasons of 2004 and 2005 were just an aberration?" Stooksbury said.

If so, how long will the current situation persist? A year ago, many weather experts were saying that the "average" drought in Georgia lasts about two years, and they expected conditions to improve soon.

But except for the remnants of Tropical Storm Fay in August, which briefly boosted the lake up about 2 feet, rain has been scarce in Northeast Georgia this year.

Statewide, there has been considerable improvement. A year ago, the U.S. Drought Monitor classified 27.8 percent of the region as being in "exceptional" drought, the worst category. This week, only 5.3 percent of the area is rated exceptional.

Unfortunately, that 5.3 percent is stuck directly over Northeast Georgia like a bull's-eye target.

Conversely, southwest Georgia and the Florida panhandle have no drought at all. That area happens to comprise the lower watershed of the Apalachicola River in western Florida.

In the dispute over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, Florida has argued that more water should be released from Lake Lanier in order to benefit the ecosystem of the Apalachicola Bay.

That aspect of the "water war" remains unresolved. However, on Nov. 14 the corps did approve the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's request to slightly reduce the amount of water released from Buford Dam.

Ordinarily, the corps requires 750 cfs (cubic feet per second) of flow in the Chattahoochee River at Peachtree Creek, to dilute sewage discharges from Atlanta. But from now until April 30, the mandatory minimum flow will be 650 cfs.

Payne said this decision has been incorrectly interpreted by the media to imply that Lake Lanier would rise about a foot, as a result of more water being held back. But he points out that the only thing that can cause the lake level to rise is rainfall.

"What will actually happen is that the lake may drop a foot less than it would have had we not changed the discharge rate," he said.

Still, Lanier has the potential to drop much lower than it ever has before. Payne said he's not worried, at least not yet.

"If the lake fell to, say, 1,048 (feet), we expect no impacts other than on recreation," he said. "It won't affect the ability to withdraw drinking water until it gets down to about 1,035."

When Lanier dropped to its previous record low last year, local water plants modified their intake systems so they could draw water from a lower depth.

But for recreation, changing the infrastructure will help only to a certain point. Several of Lanier's boat ramps have been extended to accommodate the sinking water level. But once the lake reaches 1,044 feet, all of its ramps will be unusable.




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