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Fuller than full: Some push for higher lake level

Groups say 2-foot increase in full pool will be beneficial

POSTED: November 22, 2009 12:30 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

The Wahoo Creek bridge on Mount Vernon Highway is one of the lowest bridges on Lake Lanier, with an elevation of 1,078 feet above sea level.

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Lake Lanier has flirted with, or soared above, 1,073 feet above sea level many times, including after hard rains two weeks ago.

And there are those who would like to see that elevation become the permanent full-pool marker.

Chief among them is Val Perry, executive vice president of the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association.

"Everybody wins," he said of increasing the full pool from 1,071 feet.

"There will be costs. I'm not saying that it is free, but to get a 27 billion gallon reservoir anywhere in this state, when you start from scratch, is probably 10 years and $100 million to $200 million."

The issue traces to June 2006, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered that the single gauge being used to measure the lake's level was miscalibrated.

By then, the lake was 1.9 feet lower than the corps had believed, and 22 billion extra gallons of water had been released from Buford Dam.

Members of Georgia's congressional delegation grilled Brig. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, commander of the corps' South Atlantic Division, at a hearing later in Gainesville.

"They also wanted some people from the area to give a presentation," said Perry, a Forsyth County resident.

Jackie Joseph, the lake group's president, was asked to talk on the matter, "and I put together her package and in it I said, ‘Why don't we take this (lake) up 2 feet?'" he said.

"When Jackie showed those charts, those slides, there was an applause in the audience, so we thought this might be a pretty good idea."

He floated the idea in a letter to the corps in January 2007 and got a letter back saying it would be taken under advisement "as we do our next water control plan and activities."

State lawmakers then passed a resolution to ask for the full-pool increase.

Then came the worst of the drought that had been under way for a while and a heating up of the "water wars" between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

That 20-year dispute came to a head this past July, when a federal judge ruled that the Atlanta area was illegally using Lake Lanier as a source for drinking water.

"We have been pushing now for almost three years to get this done," Perry said. "And even the most recent conversations with the corps have been that they are not going to do it until Congress authorizes it - and that's just the study, not the doing it."

Tim Rainey, the corps' operations projects manager at Buford Dam, said raising the full-pool level would have several effects on the lake project.

"We would have to redo a bunch of the recreation areas or facilities," he said.

Rainey cited, as an example, a long concrete walkway that goes around the shoreline at West Bank Park near Buford Dam.

"That walkway's at 1,073, so in essence, we would lose all those picnic sites (near it)," he said.

Also, guidelines call for the top of riprap and walls to be at 1,075 feet, "so that gives only 2 feet of freeboard if we were at 1,073," Rainey said. "What would end up happening, over time, with wave action and fluctuating levels, is water would get behind that stuff and make it fail.

"Almost all the riprap and bulkhead would have to be modified."

As for bridges crossing portions of Lanier, they vary widely in elevation, according to the corps.

Wahoo Creek Bridge is at the lowest height, at 1,078 feet, and Longstreet Bridge is at the highest, or 1,114 feet.

Lake Lanier's flood storage is 1,085 feet, so changing the full pool to 1,073 "would reduce the flood storage," Rainey said. "... Even though it's a large lake, it can fill up quickly in a short amount of time and especially if it's flooding downstream to where we are holding back.

"We still believe we need every bit of flood storage capacity that we have. We don't want to take a chance."

The lake's emergency spillway consists of a "big grassy area off Lanier Park that's topped off at 1,085," Rainey said. "It's not gated or anything; we would have no control over that water."

Above average rainfall, especially this falls, has boosted Lanier's levels above full pool.

A rainy fall has boosted Lanier's level. Heavy rains nearly two weeks ago took the lake from 1,071.21 feet to 1,072.90 in two days.

"At elevations greater than 1,071, the corps and homeowners around Lake Lanier experience issues with recreational areas, boat ramps, access to docks and shoreline erosion," said Lisa Coghlan, Mobile, Ala.-based spokeswoman for the corps.

She added that "on any given day" since Oct. 14, the corps has received three to five calls on the matter.

Those numbers clash with internal surveys taken by the Lake Lanier Association.

A Nov. 12 e-mail from Vicki Barnhorst, the group's executive director, said she had so far received 150-plus e-mails from people "telling us that they are thrilled with the lake level for a variety of reasons - mainly health and beauty of the lake.

"Nobody has complained yet," she added.

Annette Forster, past president and former member of the Lake Lanier Rowing Club, said she believes 1,073 feet "is not a problem for the Olympic venue or rowing course" at Clarks Bridge Park.

"The issue is the range around 1,073 that the corps would allow ... to fluctuate," she said.

"The boathouse apparently flooded in early 1996 when the water was around 1,075, which is also about the level where the docks would flood and/or could suffer problems with the hinges that attach them to the sea wall by the boathouse."

She added, "Historically, the lake level fluctuation has been far greater below full pool than above, but I (am) surprised at how frequently the lake has hit 1,073 and even 1,074 to 1,075 with a full pool level of 1,071."

"That begs the question of whether a full pool of 1,073 would inevitably then cause the lake to regularly fluctuate from 1,075 to 1,078. And that would be a problem for the Olympic venue and probably other lakefront infrastructure as well."

Infrastructure, however, "can be rebuilt or retrofitted to accommodate a higher lake level," Forster said.

Does the federal judge's ruling make any discussion about raising the full pool to 1,073 purely academic?

After all, the judge has given Georgia three years to reach an agreement with its neighbors or face having to shut off its largest spigot.

Not so, said Wilton Rooks, interim president of the newly formed ACF Stakeholders, which consists of people deemed to have a vested interest in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin, which includes Lake Lanier.

Using a different number than Perry, he said, "There is still 26 billion gallons that can be used for authorized purposes."

Rooks also is a member of the Lake Lanier Association, which has served as an advocacy group for years, and 1071 Coalition, which formed in December with an eye toward ensuring that management practices keep Lanier full.

As far as the prospects of 1,073 feet becoming full pool, he said, "I don't know, but the prospect is zero if we don't push it."




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