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With Lake Lanier full, the challenge now is to keep it there

Lake reaches 1,071-foot water level for the first time since 2005

POSTED: October 14, 2009 11:38 p.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Robert Estrada, owner of the TowBoat U.S. dock at Lanier Harbor Marina in Buford, drives his tow boat Tuesday on Lake Lanier. Estrada said he was happy to hear the lake had reached full pool.

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For the first time in more than four years, the reservoir that supplies water to Gainesville and most of metro Atlanta is full.

Lake Lanier reached — and surpassed — its full pool elevation of 1,071 feet above sea level Wednesday, drowning out any doubt that the recent historic drought has ended.

Lake Lanier has not been recorded at its full pool elevation since September 2005.

Between then and now, an extreme drought in North Georgia caused Lanier’s level to drop to record-breaking lows more than 20 feet below the lake’s full level. It fell to an all-time low of 1,050.79 feet in December 2007.

But as the rains returned this year, Lake Lanier’s water levels rose again. The reservoir reached full pool Wednesday, almost exactly two years after state officials declared that the region was in the state’s highest degree of drought and banned all outdoor water use.

Two years ago this week, a water official in Gainesville estimated the lake was dropping about a foot-and-a-half each week.

But now, the drought is gone and an abnormally wet fall season has helped Lanier’s levels rebound.

"This is the wackiest weather year possible," said Mary Kay Woodworth, the executive director of the Metro Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association and spokeswoman for the Urban Agriculture Council. "The predictions obviously were that the lake wouldn’t come back up until the end of the year or sometime next year if we had normal rainfall."

Even the corps, which manages the lake, did not expect that the lake would reach full pool this month.

The lake’s level normally drops in October, said Pat Robbins, a public affairs officer for the corps.

The corps predicted on Oct. 6 that the lake would reach a level of 1,069.4 feet this week, and begin to drop again throughout the rest of the month.

But on Monday, as nearly 4 inches of rain fell in Gainesville, full pool became a possibility.

And on Tuesday, the corps changed its four-week forecast for the lake, predicting it would rise above the full pool level this week and stay slightly above the 1,071 elevation through mid-November.

And instead of predicting how fast the lake’s waters are receding, state officials are looking for ways to maximize what’s there.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle wrote a letter Wednesday encouraging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to let Lanier’s level rise another 2 feet.

"As Georgia and the Atlanta area continues to do our part to conserve water, I would ask the corps to strongly consider maintaining Lanier at these higher levels," Cagle wrote. "This is the right time and opportunity to store more of our state’s liquid gold and ‘put a little away for an un-rainy day.’"

But Lisa Coghlan, deputy public affairs officer for the corps, who had not seen Cagle’s letter, said that storing water at elevations higher than the 1,071 level would impact boat ramps and other corps facilities around the lake. But for now, the corps plans to keep releases from Lake Lanier at a minimum, despite the lake’s full status, Coghlan said.

For the communities on the lake’s 692 miles of shoreline, a fuller lake means safer recreation and could mean a more robust local economy.

The lowering lake levels depressed area businesses before the nation officially entered an economic recession.

For more than two years, while Lake Lanier was at its lowest points, the region endured strict water-use restrictions. Local utilities implemented intense conservation programs to meet state-mandated reductions in water use. Residents were banned from most outdoor water use.

"There have been a lot of people laid off because of this drought and the low water levels, and I think a lot of that will come back (now)," aid Val Perry, executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association, a volunteer group that strives to preserve water quality and quantity in the lake.

But as the rains returned, the state declared in June that the two-year drought had ended and eased watering restrictions. That same month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lifted a drought-induced moratorium on issuing new boat dock permits.

The higher water levels make lakeside real estate look like an attractive investment again, and allow marinas to retrieve boats from dry docks.

And maybe most of all, a full lake may give a psychological boost to Gainesville residents and businesses, so many of which depend on the lake, said State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

"It just means a great deal psychologically to this community," Collins said. "I think the lake being full in a large sense is the identity of this area."

But the lake has also risen into a quagmire of controversy.

"A full lake ... helps those businesses selling boats, selling fishing equipment, restaurants on the lake and around the lake — so, as far as the economy it’s very important to us," state Sen. Lee Hawkins said. "I’m thrilled that we’ve got the water back, but as far as water withdrawal, it does not increase the amount of water we can withdraw under this ruling."

In July, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that water withdrawal was not a congressionally authorized use of Lake Lanier. The ruling gives Georgia three years to stop using the reservoir for water consumption, negotiate another deal with Florida and Alabama or have Congress reauthorize the lake’s use.

Grier Todd, president of the Lake Lanier advocacy group 1071 Coalition, called the rising lake level "absolutely great news for everybody," but said the same old issues hang over the lake’s future.

"Just because we’re back at 1,071, it doesn’t mean we can’t get in trouble again if we don’t make some changes," Todd said.

Although the region’s last drought has clearly ended, the area is not exempt from future droughts. Crucial decisions need to be made about how the lake will be managed in future droughts without the reservoir bearing "the brunt of keeping the whole basin watered during the drought," Todd said.

"We probably need to work a little harder now just because there is water in the lake and people maybe don’t have that real sense of urgency that they did when it was 20 feet below full pool, but we’ve still got to zero in on trying to make sure that it doesn’t happen again," Todd said.

And Woodworth said she hopes that state government and business leaders spend the lake’s glory days making sure the state is better prepared for the next drought.

Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Carol Couch’s move directly to the Level 4 drought response from the Level 2 in fall 2007, "totally ruined the landscape industry economically," Woodworth said.

"For the landscape industry, it’s good in the sense that no one’s talking about drought restrictions or water restrictions, but it also reminds me that ... we have got to get focused on working with the state so that when we do have another drought — and that day will come — that we won’t get stuck with the problems we had last time," Woodworth said.



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