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Amid questions, Army Corps gives answers

Lake Lanier Association’s annual meeting full of hows and whys

POSTED: May 31, 2008 5:00 a.m.

A few docks float on the water while others sit amongst the grass on dry land at the edge of Lake Lanier.

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DAWSONVILLE — Why can’t the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers do more to boost the water level in Lake Lanier?

Not surprisingly, that was the question on everyone’s mind during the Lake Lanier Association’s annual meeting Monday night.

About 350 people attended the event, held at Lakeview Center in Dawsonville. Most were eager to hear Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel, commander of the corps’ South Atlantic Division.

Schroedel also brought with him several other corps officials, including Col. Byron Jorns, commander of the Mobile District (which has jurisdiction over Lanier), and James Hathorn, hydraulic engineer for the district.

They encountered an audience that was clearly frustrated over the fact that Lanier is still struggling while other reservoirs on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system are doing well.

"I’m hopeful that the corps will be able to help us do better, to not take the lake down as much," said Val Perry, executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association. "It’s bad for us to be 13 feet down (from full pool) and everyone else to be full today."

Schroedel, who has worked with water systems in the chronically dry western United States, said the bitterness and animosity out there were nothing compared to the way people are feeling in Georgia.

"This has been a long, grueling year, folks," he said. "I’ve never seen such fights over water."

To help people understand the issues better, Schroedel asked Hathorn to present a slide show featuring lake statistics. Hathorn said if extremely dry conditions prevail, he expects Lanier to be 6 feet below its current level of 1,057 feet by Sept. 1. But if the summer is wetter than expected, the lake may fall only 2.5 feet from its present level.

Hathorn noted that it takes Lanier 3.5 times longer to refill than two downstream reservoirs, West Point and Walter F. George.

He really seemed to touch a nerve when he showed a slide depicting the amount of water the corps has been releasing from Buford Dam over the past six months. It showed very large releases during December, at the same time that Lanier hit its lowest level ever recorded, more than 20 feet below full pool.

People began spontaneously yelling out questions, even though Hathorn had not invited input from the audience.

Why did you wait until December to start cutting releases from Lanier down to a minimum? "Because that’s when we got rain at the other reservoirs (downstream) in the system," Hathorn replied.

Why did the corps release so much more water last summer than it did during previous droughts? "Because we weren’t getting enough flow from the Flint River," he said. "It depended on the distribution of rain."

Schroedel finally had to step in and cut off the questioning so that Hathorn could finish his slide show.

When Schroedel took the microphone for the scheduled Q&A, lake residents grilled him on why so much water had to be sent downstream to benefit endangered mussels in the Apalachicola Bay below Woodruff Dam.

Schroedel said it’s too simplistic to blame all of Lanier’s woes on the mussels. "People have turned this into a mussels-versus-man situation, and it is much more complex than that," he said.

Perry certainly feels the mussels should bear much of the blame. "They’re not good for anything. Nobody eats them except raccoons," he said, garnering applause.

On June 1, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is expected to render an opinion on whether flows at Woodruff Dam can be slightly reduced without hurting the mussels too much. But Perry wonders what exactly the agency will base that opinion on, since no one has ever done a comprehensive scientific study on the mussels’ survival requirements.

Perry has decided to take matters into his own hands. He said the lake association plans to collaborate with Virgil Williams, the new owner of Lake Lanier Islands, to fund and carry out their own study of the mussels’ biology, recruiting their own independent scientists.

"Because Fish & Wildlife is not doing their job," Perry said.

He said he plans to have a kick-off meeting for the project sometime in June, but a date has not been set.

An audience member asked Schroedel why the other two parties in the tri-state water wars, Alabama and Florida, did not have water-use restrictions as Georgia does.

"I’m a fan of water conservation. I didn’t water my lawn all last summer," he said. "But that is a state issue. It is outside the purview of the federal government."

Schroedel said if people are unhappy about the way things are being done, they should contact their elected officials.

The public will have an opportunity to do just that on June 19, when the lake association is sponsoring a political forum at Lakeview Center. Association director Vicki Barnhorst said this year’s forum will have a somewhat different format than in years past.

"The audience will get to ask the candidates the questions," she said.

At least a few people Monday night wanted to know about issues other than the lake level. Jorns was asked what’s been happening with Bethel Park, a corps property that both Forsyth County and the Metro Atlanta YMCA want to take over and manage for their own purposes.

Jorns said all of the public comments have been compiled and considered. "Within a few short weeks, we should be ready to make a decision on Bethel Park," he said.


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