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Association says Army Corps of Engineers plan needs to give extra care to Lake Lanier

POSTED: May 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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Should Lake Lanier be managed differently from other lakes in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin?

The Lake Lanier Association says yes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says no.

"What we’re upset about is that the (corps’ plan) doesn’t do anything to help Lake Lanier," said Val Perry, vice president of the lake advocacy group.

On April 15, the corps proposed a modified version of the interim operating plan for the river system, which includes Lanier. The federal agency is developing a permanent operating plan for the basin, but it won’t be ready for at least three years.

In the meantime, the corps has a document that spells out how much water needs to be released from reservoirs to support power plants and endangered mussels downstream in Florida. Right now, it specifies a minimum flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second from Jim Woodruff Dam into the Apalachicola River at the Georgia/Florida line.

The modified interim plan has a drought contingency plan that allows the flow to be cut back to 4,500 cfs during a dry spell. What bothers some members of the lake association is how the corps decides when the drought plan should be triggered.

The corps categorizes lakes according to how far below full pool they are, with Zone 1 being normal and Zone 4 being extremely low. The agency’s plan also uses a concept called composite storage, a combined total of the water available in Lanier, West Point and Walter F. George lakes.

"The modified (plan) has something called a drought zone," said Perry. "It only happens when all of the lakes are at Zone 4. Then they take specific action to slow down the releases. As soon as one of (the lakes) gets to Zone 3, then the drought zone doesn’t kick in any longer."

This hurts Lanier, he said, because of the reservoir’s unique hydrology. Lanier is so large that it accounts for 65 percent of the
water capacity in the system, yet its tiny watershed makes up only 5 percent of the basin’s total land area. So Lanier takes much longer to fill back up.

"Right now, all the (other) lakes in the system are at full pool," said Perry. "Lanier is 10 feet below where it was at this point last year. If the drought continues, we will bottom out not at 1,050 (feet above sea level), but at 1,040 or worse."

Lanier’s normal full pool is 1,071 feet. The lake fell to a historic low of 1,050.79 in December.

The lake association wants a "Lanier-specific" trigger that would allow the corps to cut back on water releases if Lanier is drastically low, even if the other lakes are in good condition. The group contends that the corps’ methodology for calculating a "drought zone" is "totally arbitrary."

On May 1, the association sent a letter to Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel, commander of the corps’ South Atlantic Division, asking the general to step in and make changes to the proposed interim operating plan.

Schroedel was out of town last week, but Perry went to Atlanta and met with Schroedel’s chief of staff and a corps attorney.

Perry asked why the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has never examined whether the endangered mussels could survive on a reduced flow in the Apalachicola.

"We want them to seriously and scientifically study what those mussels really need. No one is doing that," Perry said.

The required minimum flow of 5,000 cfs near Woodruff Dam was set long ago, based not on an ecological study but on the amount requested by one of Southern Company’s coal-fired power plants.

Yet even though biologists haven’t done a study on the mussels, they will help determine whether the modified interim plan will go into effect.

"We’re waiting to hear back from Fish & Wildlife, which we hope will happen by June 1," said Lisa Coghlan, spokeswoman for the corps in Mobile.

She said the corps is not taking public comments on its proposal, which is considered to be an amendment to the existing interim operating plan rather than a brand-new plan.

But once the corps begins drafting a permanent strategy for the basin, Coghlan said there will be a full public comment process.

"Endangered species, along with everything else, will be reviewed when we update the water management plan," she said.

Despite the lack of public hearings, people will have an opportunity next week to voice their opinions about the proposal. The Lake Lanier Association will hold its annual meeting Monday in Dawsonville, and Schroedel is scheduled to be the featured speaker.

Dean Allen, a lake homeowner, said he expects a big turnout.

"We need as many people as possible to go to this meeting," he said. "We have to stand up for our rights."

Allen believes the corps has shown preferential treatment in its decisions about water allocation in the system.

"They’re considering the economic impact on Florida, but not the impact for homeowners on Lake Lanier," he said.

Florida has argued that reduced flow downstream would harm its oyster industry in the Apalachicola Bay. Allen said if that’s going to be factored into the equation, then the corps must also consider the recreational and real estate impact of Lanier, which has been estimated at more than $5.5 billion.

Allen said he saved up his money for a long time and was finally able to purchase a lake home five years ago. Now he sees his dream slipping away.

"Sales of homes on the lake are near zero, and I’m about to lose everything I’ve ever worked for," he said. "Families on the lake are going bankrupt."

Perry said he just wants the corps to acknowledge that Lanier is not a typical reservoir, and it needs to managed differently.

"I’m not saying we should do anything at the expense of the other lakes (in the system). I want them to stay as full as possible," Perry said. "But Lanier needs to have special consideration."



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