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Red clay turns to blue water as Lake Lanier improves from 'severe' to 'moderate' drought

POSTED: March 30, 2009 12:45 p.m.
TOM REED /The Times

The area in front of the boathouses at Clarks Bridge Park was completely dry when the lake was almost at a record low level in November 2007.

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Georgians endured four days of steady rain last week, and their patience has paid off.

On Monday, state climatologist David Stooksbury announced an easing of drought conditions across North Georgia. The Lake Lanier basin, which had been considered to be in "severe" drought, has been downgraded to "moderate."

However, restrictions on outdoor watering will remain in place, for the time being.

"We’re happy it’s raining, don’t misunderstand," said Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. "But we need four consecutive months of improvement to convene the state drought response committee (to consider changing the rules)."

Chambers pointed out that the current level of Lake Lanier is about the same as it was in September 2007 when the EPD declared a Level 4 drought response, banning virtually all outdoor watering.

But Lanier seems relatively healthy now because it was in such bad shape a few months ago. In early December, Lanier came perilously close to breaking its all-time record low of 1,050.79 feet above sea level. Normal full pool is 1,071.

At that point, the Lanier watershed was in "exceptional" drought, the worst category. But some rain fell in the basin in mid-December, and Stooksbury reclassified the area as "extreme."

On Feb. 25, the lake improved to "severe." Stooksbury said the reclassification to "moderate" is based on stream flows and reservoir levels in the watershed.

"The stream flows had been near record lows," he said. "Now they’re close to normal. If those flows are maintained over the next three or four weeks, that area may be reclassified as ‘abnormally dry.’"

Most of North Georgia, except for the Lanier and Lake Hartwell basins, is already categorized as abnormally dry, which is the equivalent of mild drought.

Georgia’s smaller reservoirs are now full, thanks to rains that brought widespread flooding to the state’s midsection. But the two largest lakes, Lanier and Hartwell, are still lagging.

"The Northeast Georgia mountains did not receive as much rain as the Piedmont area did," said Stooksbury.

Still, the approximately 3 inches that fell in the Lanier basin last week pushed the lake to almost 1,060.6 feet.

"We’ve gone up about 1.4 feet since this all began, and may go up another half-foot," said Kent Frantz, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City.

"We’re in good shape, but still 10 feet down from full pool. We need a three-month trend of above-normal rainfall before we can declare that the drought is over."

Frantz said March’s rainfall was above normal, "but that doesn’t mean it’s a trend."

Statistically, though, April is the third-wettest month in Georgia, so the outlook is promising.

"The normal recharge period for lakes and rivers is through May 1," said Frantz. "After that, the lake traditionally starts to go down."

Stooksbury said the lake loses water more rapidly in summer from evaporation and from vegetation pulling more moisture out of the soil.

If the EPD eventually does decide to ease watering restrictions, that could also hasten the flow of water out of Lanier.

"But I doubt the state will ever recommend going back to wasteful water use," said Frantz. "And water rates are higher than they were three years ago, so that may deter people from using more."

Len Jernigan, manager of Aqualand Marina on Lake Lanier, hopes Georgia residents will remind mindful of water conservation. "We’ve got a finite resource," he said. "I hope people don’t think they can all go out and start washing their cars now."

On the other hand, if everyone decides they want to go for a boat ride, that would be fine with him.

"We’re happy. The mood is very positive at all the marinas," Jernigan said. "They said it was going to be a dry spring, but it’s not starting out that way. As the lake comes up, we’re pulling our docks back in. And our public (boat) ramp (at Aqualand) will open this week."

The marinas have made improvements so they can function even with the lake at a very low level, but for normal operation, they prefer the water to be above 1,060.

It’s still two months until Memorial Day, the traditional beginning of the summer season. No one knows whether the lake will continue to gain elevation or the water level will recede.

But Jernigan is optimistic that this summer will be better than 2008.

"Last year, we started the season at 1,057," he said.



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