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Lake Lanier’s fortunes looking up after days of rain

Long-term forecast for lake's level remains unclear

POSTED: January 8, 2009 12:01 a.m.

What a difference a month makes.

By Dec. 9, Lake Lanier had dropped to 1,051 feet above sea level, 20 feet below its normal full pool. Within a day or two, the lake was expected to surpass its all-time low of 1,050.79, recorded on Dec. 26, 2007.

But on Dec. 11, there was a big rain. And every few days for the rest of December, a little more rain fell. The lake level began to creep back up. By Monday, it had reached 1,053.39.

Then the real gully washer started. As much as 4 inches of rain fell on parts of the Lanier basin Tuesday, and swollen creeks continued to feed into the lake even after the rain stopped. By 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, Lanier had reached 1,055.41.

The lake hasn’t been up at that level since the first week of September, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Lanier database.

Kevin McDaniels, assistant operations manager for the corps at Buford Dam, is pleased at this reversal of fortune.

"We seem to be in much better shape than we were at this time last year," he said. "We’ve gained 4 feet in a month."

When Lanier hit its record low in December 2007, it didn’t climb above 1,055 until mid-March.

But will the upward trend continue?

"It’s very important to keep this up," said Kent Frantz, senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Peachtree City. "This is what we should be having in winter. You want to see a rainfall event every three to five days, with at least an inch falling each time."

But the long-term forecast is murky.

"We still don’t have any definite trends to show that we’re going into a wetter pattern," said Frantz.

Despite the fact that the ground is soggy, the Lanier basin is still classified as being in "extreme" drought, the second-worst category.

But even if the lake doesn’t get much additional rain, the winter climate means it will be able to retain more of the water it already has.

"The good news is that January and February have the lowest evaporation rate of the year," said Frantz.

McDaniels said the previous smaller rains have had a cumulative effect.

"The ground is saturated, so we’ve got more water coming into the lake than we did in early December, when the ground was dry," he said.

Almost overnight, Lanier’s recreational outlook has improved. At 1,055 feet, 14 of the lake’s public boat ramps are usable; at 1,056, two more become usable.

"Two or three weeks ago, we were down to having just a couple of ramps open," said McDaniels.

With 14 ramps available, there’s a lot more parking for boaters. Since lack of parking spaces is what limits people from getting their boats into the water, McDaniels anticipates higher visitation at the lake now, even in winter.

"When we had those 70-degree days recently, there were people out there in their speedboats and Jet Skis," he said.

Overall visitation at Lanier in 2008 was 30 percent lower than it would have been in a normal year, McDaniels said.

Alex Laidlaw, vice president of operations at Holiday Marina in Buford, sees the lake’s recent rise as a positive omen.

"I’m clearly more optimistic today than I was a month ago," he said. "We’re hoping for a high water mark of 1,062 this spring. Anything above 1,060, we can function pretty well. But the highest it ever got last year was about 1,058."

Frantz said if regular rains continue to occur through the winter and spring, 1,060 is an achievable goal for the lake.

"I’m very hopeful that we’ll get to that level," he said.


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