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Lanier flirts with new low

Reduced water releases won’t have an effect for months

POSTED: November 23, 2007 5:03 a.m.

As a record-setting drought continues to bake Northeast Georgia, Lake Lanier's water level on Sunday neared its lowest since it began filling up more than 50 years ago.

At 10 a.m. Monday, the water level was at 1,052.72 feet above sea level, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site. The lake is now just 0.06 feet above the previously recorded low of 1,052.66 feet, recorded in December 1981.

With no drought-busting rains in the forecast, the water level is expected to continue dropping. Some rain is expected Wednesday and Thursday, but not enough to end the drought.

"We were expecting (the lake) to reach its low over the weekend, but it looks like it's probably not going to happen until (today) or Tuesday," said Lisa Coghlan, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Mobile District.

Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came to an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday to collectively reduce the flow of water from Buford Dam to 4,750 cubic feet per second, Coghlan said lake levels have not yet been substantially affected.

She added that it will likely take months for the reduced release rate to contribute to steady or rising lake levels.

"Over time you'll be able to see a difference, but overnight it takes a while," Coghlan said. "It doesn't show up automatically. It's too much water for it to do that."

If lake levels continue to drop as expected, the plan calls for water flows to be reduced to 4,500 cfs and then to 4,150 cfs, if warranted.

Despite the expectation of a record low for Lake Lanier, Coghlan said the lake still retains about 70 percent of its water in storage.

Access to Lake Lanier has become increasingly limited. Only two boat ramps, Tidwell and Shoal Creek, are currently in operation.

"And we’re looking to possibly close those if the water continues to decrease," Coghlan said. "Once they’re deemed unsafe and we can’t get a three-foot clearance to get the boats out, we’ll have to close them at that point."

If water levels keep dropping, the boat ramp at Shoal Creek will be inoperable by the week’s end.

Lake Lanier Association President Jackie Joseph lived on Lake Lanier during its record low water level in 1981.

"I guess because of the lake not being quite that developed at the time it wasn’t as ... drastic," Joseph said. "With the lake not being as populated by boat ramps ... people or marinas ... it did not receive the attention it’s getting right now. More people are affected."

As the primary water source for the metro Atlanta area, the water levels of Lake Lanier affect a much larger population now than in 1981, and discussion regarding water releases at the time did not center around the Endangered Species Act. In addition, the lake was restored to near full pool within six months of the 1981 record low water level.

"Certainly, today’s usage is substantially greater than it was when we were in the ’81 drought," Joseph said.

Joseph said members of the Lake Lanier Association are attending a hearing in Jacksonville, Fla., today to discuss Lake Lanier’s release rates with legal representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the states of Georgia, Alabama and Florida in front of a federal judge.

"I think that it needs to be an agreement up and down the basin that everyone needs to be giving, and we’re giving without a question," Joseph said. "We need to legally establish water rules and regulations."

Coghlan said that as water stored in Lake Lanier, West Point Lake and Walter S. George Lake increases or decreases, flow rates and other plan provisions will be adjusted.

"If we get rain, (the Corps of Engineers) is going to hold that rainwater back," Coghlan said.

The National Weather Service predicts a 40 percent chance of rain for the Gainesville area on Wednesday, with evening showers that could amount to a half-inch before midnight. Thursday holds about a 70 percent chance of rain that could deliver about one inch to some areas, National Weather Service forecaster Matt Sena said.

There is an approximate 18-inch rain deficit across North Georgia for the calendar year, Sena said.

"It’s a start," he said. "But we’re way too far behind for one event to make a significant impact. Hopefully we’ll get a little bit of runoff to make it into the lake."



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