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Lanier on brink of record low water level

Fifty-year-old lake could reach lowest point in next few days

POSTED: November 22, 2007 5:04 a.m.

The final answer to "how low can it go?" still may be a long time in coming for Lake Lanier, even as the water level inches closer to the previous record set in 1981.

As of 11 a.m. Sunday, the lake level was at 1,052.78 feet above sea level. That means it is just 0.12 feet short of the record level of 1,052.66 recorded on Dec. 24, 1981, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site.

It is inevitable that Lake Lanier will celebrate its 50th year by dropping below that level. That likely will happen sometime in the next day or two, as the level has been dropping about two-tenths of a foot per day, or some 2.5 inches. With forecasters calling for an unusually dry winter due to the La Niña influence, this record-setting day likely will be the first of many, despite a reduction in water releases.

On Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reduced the flow from the Chattahoochee River by 5 percent and plan to reduce it another 5 percent later. That represents a total reduction of 10 percent from the minimum flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second required under the Endangered Species Act to protect mussels and sturgeon in the Apalachicola River in northwest Florida.

But the top regional official of the corps is cautioning that the reduced flow into Florida would not necessarily result in an immediate impact on the amount of water leaving Lake Lanier.

"If the flows out of the Flint (River) or the flows south of Buford remain low, then the balance will be made up out of Lanier," Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel said. "There is not a direct, one-to-one correlation between a reduction in flows south of Woodruff (Dam) and a reduction in flows on Lanier."

Though this year's extreme drought has focused attention of the lake, the level has been dropping steadily for the past two years. According to corps records, the last time the lake was at the full pool level of 1,071 feet was Sept. 6, 2005.

Earlier this summer, on Sept. 20, the lake stood at 1,059.89 feet above sea level. That's more than 11 feet below its normal full pool of 1,071. It's dropped more than 6 feet in the two months since then.

In September, Mark Williams, chief ranger for the corps at Buford Dam, said the agency was releasing the minimum allowable amount of water from the dam. "The problem is that there's nothing coming into the lake (from tributary streams)," he said.

The drought has been characterized as a 100-year drought for much of North Georgia. The normal year-to-date rainfall for Gainesville through Saturday is 48.30 inches. As of Saturday, the area only had received 26.29 inches of rain this year, a deficit of 22.01 inches.

"Even if we stopped releasing anything at all from the dam, the lake would continue to drop, because municipalities are still withdrawing water (for drinking)," Williams said in September.

And municipalities are scrambling to draw out that water. Cumming has had to extend its intake lines farther into the lake, and may have to move their pumps farther out, as well. Gainesville officials say their intakes, which are vertical, will be able to draw out water at much lower levels.

There are different reports about how much drinking water is left in the lake, regardless of the measures cities take to reach it.

Schroedel dispelled any notion of a fixed number of days of remaining water in Lake Lanier. "That number changes daily," he said. "There is still a lot of water in Lake Lanier."

He said that various scenarios show that there is 450 days of water before the lake would be dry. A report published prior to the news conference indicated state and federal officials agreed the lake had 79 days of conservation storage left.



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