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Inside Buford Dam, Lake Lanier’s powerhouse

Water — and goats — aside, dam offers glimpse into history

POSTED: September 6, 2009 12:30 a.m.

A look inside Buford Dam

A behind-the-scenes tour of Buford Dam at Lake Lanier provided by plant manager Cecil L. Quinley.

SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Electrical engineer Cecil L. Quinley shows off the control room inside the Lower Pool East Buford Powerhouse at Buford Dam.

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BUFORD — Engineering marvel comes to mind, not legal rulings and political wrangling, when treading carefully through the slippery, dimly lit tunnel 150 feet under Buford Dam Road.

More than 50 years ago, workers blasted through a mountain of granite rock to create a 200-foot pathway connecting the powerhouse to the intake center, a structure that stiffens up Lake Lanier at the mouth of the Chattahoochee River.

"Five to six feet through that (concrete wall) is Lake Lanier," said Cecil L. Quinley, power project manager, his voice echoing through the cavernous room.

A debate rages over whether Lanier’s waters should be used for municipal purposes — as they are today, to the tune of 477 million gallons per day — but it doesn’t consume time at this operation run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Power project manager Cecil L. Quinley and his handful of employees at the heavily secured dam focus on keeping machines humming and other vital tasks, such as alerting anglers downstream when water is released.

Oh, and making sure the grass-chewing goats — yes, goats — keep the steep, rocky hillside leading from Buford Dam Road to the dam well-groomed.

Congress authorized Buford Dam for construction in 1946 as part of the overall development of the nation’s waterways after World War II. Lawmakers, according to the corps, were concerned about national defense, flood control, power production, navigation and water supplies.

The U.S. government gave Georgia $750,000 in late 1949 to complete the initial planning and design of the project. A ground-breaking ceremony was held on the Gwinnett County side of the future dam site on March 1, 1950.

Work on the main earthen dam, as well as three saddle dikes, powerhouse and road improvements, took five years to complete.

Gates at the intake structure were closed so that what would be called Lake Lanier could start to fill.

Two years later, the lake reached its full pool of 1,071 feet above sea level — a mark that remains today, even though some advocates are urging it be raised to 1,073.

A dedication ceremony was held on Oct. 9, 1957.

Early this decade, the powerhouse through a major renovation, the first since the lake and dam were built.

On a baking hot day in early August, Quinley provided a tour of the facility.

The sun bearing down from a cloudless sky, conditions got more comfortable on the walk to the powerhouse as the driveway led downward between carved-out, mountainous walls.

A substation and transformer yard sit outside the entrance to the plant, which retains its 1950s architecture inside and out.

"Buford Dam is a hydropower facility," Quinley said, giving a quick synopsis of operations. "We take water in at our intake structure. The water comes through a large pipe and then the water turns the turbine on the generator.

"And the generators are, of course, where power is made, and that power is put out on the grid."

The powerhouse has two 60-megawatt generators that operate in the morning and afternoon when there is peak electrical demand.

It has a 7-megawatt generator that runs constantly to meet minimum flow requirements of 387,763,200 gallons released per day, Quinley said.

"That’s a lot of water, but there’s a lot of people depending on that downstream (for various purposes)," he said.

According to the corps’ Web site, 3« million Georgians depend on water stored in the lake or from the Chattahoochee River downstream of Buford Dam.

Its use as drinking water has drawn decades-long protests from Florida and Alabama, which have said that is not one of Lake Lanier’s original purposes.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson of Minnesota agreed in a July 17 order, requiring Georgia to reach an agreement with Florida and Alabama or persuade Congress to authorize Lake Lanier as a water source in three years.

Area governments, including Gainesville and Buford, have relied heavily on the lake through the years. Gainesville plans to speed up plans for a new water treatment plant at the Cedar Creek reservoir in light of the recent federal ruling.

Lake Lanier, of course, is more than just a spigot for Atlanta.

It’s a major tourism spot, with boaters zipping over its waters and beachcombers finding a sunny spot on one of the shorelines around the 38,000-acre lake.

Chris Lovelady, natural resource manager, said the corps also must manage the 20,000 acres that surround the lake, especially watching for any encroachment on public land.

"There’s this great desire to have a view of the lake, to make that land your own, modify it in a way that improves the value of your property," he said. "And it’s our job to manage it as public land, which means that it all looks natural."

All of the lake’s operations are run from the corps’ offices at 1050 Buford Road, just a short drive from the dam.

The dam at Carters Lake near Ellijay actually controls generators at Buford Dam, as well as Allatoona Lake near Cartersville.

"We don’t have operators here," Quinley said. "Should we lose that communication link (to Carters Lake), the staff is trained to operate."

The Lake Lanier project is about to get an $8.3 million boost in federal stimulus money for an array of improvements, including repainting the powerhouse and performing "maintenance of the dam and related structures to reduce the risk of failure."

Lisa Coghlan, corps spokeswoman in Mobile, Ala., couldn’t say when any of the projects would start.

These days, a visit to the dam includes a trip to the main office, which features a visitors center and small museum and glimpses of the operation — including the goats — from Lower Pool Park.

About 30 years ago, an employee suggested goats as a way to maintain hard-to-reach places above the dam. Today, seven of them can be easily seen from the powerhouse entrance, which is sealed by a thick iron gate.

Access is limited to the dam and intake center because of security concerns, another casualty of the post-9/11 era.

Quinley works out of both the management office and powerhouse, able to keep an eye on both Lanier and the Chattahoochee.

From a spot overlooking rushing water as it is siphoned from the dam, he looks at the nature-filled surroundings and exhales. Fishing, not politics or anything serious, is the thing here.

"You’re just away from everything. I mean, you don’t think you’re in Atlanta or near Atlanta," Quinley said. "It’s like you’re out in a mountain in the middle of nowhere."



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