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How would lake visionaries respond today?

POSTED: July 3, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Really, it shouldn't have taken a court case to figure out that local, state and federal officials intended for Lake Lanier to be used as a water supply for neighboring communities.

After all, even before Buford Dam was built, local governments along the Chattahoochee River were sucking water from the stream to supply their residents with a drinking water source. The river, too, was used for dumping treated sewage, although it wasn't treated to nearly the degree it is today.

So why would damming up the river change that, especially since everybody knew that a big lake between the North Georgia mountains and the state's biggest city would promote unprecedented growth?

The wording in the congressional act authorizing the dam might not have mentioned water supply specifically, naming flood control, navigation and electric power generation as priorities. However, neither did it mention recreation or pollution abatement or other multi-uses of Lake Lanier. The dam was authorized as "multipurpose."

Perhaps those pushing for construction of the dam didn't think it necessary to list every benefit from the project, assuming anybody looking at that massive body of water would know it would serve as a primary water supply for communities on its shoreline.

But that will be debated forever, just as the controversy in recent years over whether "recreation" was an authorized use. Which seems silly since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built numerous parks and boat ramps around the lake, in addition to what other local governments and private enterprise did.

If only William B. Hartsfield, mayor of Atlanta when the lake was being birthed, could speak from his grave. In stumping for Buford Dam, he most always mentioned water supply to fuel Atlanta and North Georgia's development.

Here's what he had to say in a 1950s meeting with residents and officials from Hall and Gwinnett counties about Buford Dam: "Atlanta and Georgia need the water supplied by the Chattahoochee, and here we have one of the greatest rainfall areas in America waiting to be tapped. To be valuable to industry, the flow of the river must be constant, and the Buford Dam is the key structure in providing that."

Buford Dam actually grew out of proposals back in the 1930s to develop the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint rivers system with an eye eventually to making navigation possible from Atlanta to the Gulf of Mexico. However, World War II intervened and set back plans to do anything.

The year after the war ended, 1946, the federal Rivers and Harbors Board resumed serious consideration of the project, with a dam at Buford on the Chattahoochee River a high priority. At the time, the board also wanted a 9-foot channel in the river system from the Gulf to Columbus, thinking it would eventually extend it to Atlanta.

The corps had chosen the Buford site after previously thinking about a dam on the Chattahoochee near Roswell. One of the reasons for the change was better ability to regulate water supply.

"Aside from its tremendous influence on regulating the flow of water for navigation, the Buford dam would more than double the minimum water supply to Atlanta," the Gainesville News reported in 1946.

Erwin Topper, former operations manager at Buford Dam, wrote a decade ago, "In March 1950, Mayor William Hartsfield, Sen. Richard Russell and Sen. Herman Talmadge presided over the ceremonial groundbreaking of Buford Dam and the creation of Lake Lanier. If asked today, ‘Has Lake Lanier met your expectations?' how would they respond?

"As a multipurpose project, Lake Lanier was authorized by Congress to serve a number of purposes. Flood control, hydropower generation, recreation, navigation, stream flow regulation, water supply and several years later management to support fish and wildlife ...

"Most people will acknowledge that water for municipal and industrial uses will eventually edge out most other water uses as Lanier's most important purpose.

"So what would Hartsfield, Russell and Talmadge think of Lake Lanier today? Certainly they were visionaries of their time. How would they grade Lake Lanier? I think it would be ‘thumbs up' all the way around. Lake Lanier is working as well as intended and then some."

It's almost too obvious. Yet water supply and other issues concerning use of the lake likely will be argued again in the courts for years to come.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326, His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.



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