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Will anybody want the lake level lower?

POSTED: October 18, 2009 1:00 a.m.

If the wet weather pattern continues, and Lake Lanier rises higher, instead of calls for raising the lake level, some might be tempted to want to draw the water down.

That wouldn’t be unprecedented. In the spring of 1956, the Chattahoochee River had been dammed, and Lake Lanier was filling. The level was just above 1,000 feet, but a problem developed in salvaging the steel beams from the old Dawsonville Highway bridge that had spanned the river.

F.A. Nichols, who was supervising bridge work on the river and lake, had planned to recover the beams even if the rising water covered them. But muddy water prevented that, and he asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to lower the lake level or at least let it rise no higher.

Because the beams were valued at about $50,000, a pretty good sum even today, the corps agreed to maintain the level at 1,002.5 feet until the old bridgework could be salvaged. It even let out a little more water from the dam to accomplish the task.

Should the level of Lake Lanier rise a couple feet more than the 1,071 level today, it could close some boat ramps, cause problems at lakeside parks, erode more shoreline, float debris that would be a hazard for boaters and produce a hassle for dock owners. But nobody is complaining yet because a full lake is much more desirous than the naked lakeshore that was common during the drought of the last few years.

• • •

One reason temporary Bailey bridges were installed at Thompson and Brown’s bridges in 1946, was local and federal officials realized that Lake Lanier might be on the horizon. It was something that had been talked about before World War II, but now that the war was over, it became a serious possibility.

Floods in January 1946 raised the flow of the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers to record levels. They destroyed numerous roads and several bridges, including Brown’s and Thompson.

Jim Gailey built both Bailey bridges, the first in Georgia. He had been with the corps of engineers during the war, building the temporary portable bridges in Iran and other countries. Bailey bridges also were constructed in France during the D-Day invasion. The bridges got their name from a British engineer, Donald Bailey.

The Brown’s and Thompson bridges were one-lane.

The first bridge ever built at the Brown’s Bridge site was in the late 1800s by Buster Allen, who operated it as a toll bridge until a tornado destroyed it. He rebuilt the bridge, continued to charge a toll to use it, but sold it to Hall and Forsyth counties, which allowed travelers to cross it free. That second Brown’s Bridge remained until the January 1946 floods.

• • •

Those who pushed hard for the development of Buford Dam probably assumed unlimited water supplies from Lake Lanier would be a given. They could never see a day when a federal judge could rule that Gainesville, the Atlanta area and others who took water from the lake were doing so illegally. After all, the Chattahoochee, Chestatee and other streams that fed Lake Lanier were their sources of water before Buford Dam.

Local officials and Atlanta Mayor W.B. Hartsfield had promoted the dam as a "water unlimited" bonanza for the area. Yet the congressional acts authorizing the dam failed to mention water supply as an official purpose.

A.V. Shelton, assistant chief of the corps of engineers in its Atlanta office, spoke to Gainesville Rotary Club about the proposed project in June 1946. He said Buford Dam would be a multi-purpose dam to help control the drainage areas of the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers.

"The Buford Dam would be primarily a flood control project with generating electricity second, followed by recreation, soil conservation, erosion control, mosquito control and wildlife conservation," the Gainesville News quoted him as saying.

He didn’t mention water supply, but he also said the water in the lake would have a maximum rise and fall of 10 feet. Hah. He also estimated the project would cost $17.3 million. The final cost was $44.7 million. No surprise there.

Of course, at the time he spoke Congress was still debating Buford Dam, and it would be 1950 before construction would begin and another decade after that before the project would be declared complete.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesville.times.com.



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