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Our lake in crisis: What a difference a year makes

Lanier begins summer in worse shape than ’07

POSTED: June 5, 2008 5:00 a.m.
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A boater launches his craft at Little Hall Park last June. Lake Lanier began last summer just 4 feet below full pool; today, it is down more than 13 feet.

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Lake Lanier is entering uncharted territory.

As Memorial Day weekend kicks off the traditional summer recreation season, Lanier is more than 13 feet below full pool, the lowest it's ever been at this time of year.

Even in May 2001, at the worst point of a four-year drought, the lake was still 4 feet higher than it is now.

And if history is any guide, the situation can only get worse. Occasional storm systems and unusually cool spring weather have helped keep the lake level steady for the past few months. But as summer temperatures arrive, Lanier will lose more water to evaporation, and more may be released from Buford Dam to generate electricity as people crank up their air conditioners.

Normal full pool for Lanier is 1,071 feet above sea level. On a typical Memorial Day, the lake is at 1,068 or higher.

This week, it has hovered at about 1,057.7 feet. The good news is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' extended forecast predicts the lake will only drop to 1,057.4 by June 20.

But those forecasts can change at any time, depending on circumstances.

"The projections assume normal operating conditions," said James Hathorn Jr., hydraulic engineer with the corps' Mobile, Ala., district, which controls Lake Lanier.

Hathorn has predicted that by September, the lake could be anywhere from 21/2 to 6 feet lower than it is now, depending on the severity of the drought. But he does not factor in any human-caused fluctuations in the water level.

His projections assume that the corps will continue to release enough water from Buford Dam to maintain a flow of 750 cubic feet per second at Peachtree Creek in Atlanta and 5,000 cubic feet per second at Woodruff Dam near the Georgia-Florida line. But legal and administrative decisions may be made soon that could change those numbers.

"It's difficult to know what (the lake level) will be in September, because there are too many unknowns," Hathorn said.

For those who depend on the lake for income or recreation, all they can do is carry on as usual and hope for the best.

"I think it will be a somewhat relatively normal summer on the lake," said Len Jernigan, manager of Aqualand Marina. "We've got a positive outlook, both at Aqualand and the other marinas I've spoken to."

But everyone is acutely aware that Memorial Day weekend may be their best shot. The situation isn't ideal, but it's far better than it might be later this summer.

"Our marina is fully (usable) at 1,062," Jernigan said, noting that with the lake currently at 1,057 feet, about 260 of Aqualand's 1,750 boat slips are out of the water. "But everything else is up and running right now -- our store, our fuel dock."

He said the company hired a consultant to help the marina develop a plan of action for when the lake drops.

"At a certain point, we would have to make a decision to stop taking on new customers, and we would try to move existing customers into empty slips," Jernigan said. "We might have to move docks around again."

When marina managers see that the lake may be sinking to a critical low, they notify customers in advance so that boats can be removed if necessary.

"At 1,050, large boats would be stuck," he said. "You wouldn't have a way to get them out of the lake. Ramps and lifts would not be operational."

Will any recreation be possible if Lanier drops back to about 1,050 feet, as it did in December? "I don't think anybody can answer that, because no one has been there before (during the summer season)," Jernigan said.

Michael Lapina, chief ranger for the corps at Buford Dam, said the agency will try to provide recreational opportunities for as long as possible. There are now 12 boat ramps that are expected to be usable for most of the summer.

"If we have 7 feet of water at the end of a boat ramp, the lake could drop about 4 feet before the ramp would have to close," Lapina said.

Anticipating a continuation of 2007's drought, both the corps and volunteer groups have worked to extend some of the boat ramps, allowing them to stay open even as the lake dwindles.

But Lapina is concerned about the safety of boats once they get into the lake. "We have not been approving (permits for) nighttime fishing tournaments," he said.

And daytime boating is not without danger, either. "It is a different lake, and people really need to be thinking about that," Lapina said. "All the permanent water hazard markers are high and dry. We do place temporary markers. However, we can't mark every hazard on the lake."

Swimming is even more problematic. The corps has always advocated swimming at the parks and only in designated areas. But all of the corps' beaches are now a vast expanse of sand. There is no water in the areas where it's considered safe to swim.

Legally, people can swim in Lanier anyplace they want. But because the lake is actually a reservoir that was made by filling up a valley, the lake bottom drops off steeply once you get away from the beach areas.

"(Drowning) is certainly a concern," Lapina said. "That's why we're recommending that if you choose to swim, you wear a life jacket."

Two activities on Lanier won't be directly affected by the lake level this summer. You'll still be able to picnic at the day-use areas and stay in the campgrounds.

"Our campgrounds are fully booked for the Memorial Day weekend," Lapina said. "I don't know about beyond that."

No one knows how many visitors the lake will attract this year, but it's likely to be fewer than the 7.8 million who visited last year.

The only thing that could give Lanier a normal summer season is a massive, drenching storm system that pummels Northeast Georgia for several days. And Hathorn said there's no way to predict the odds of that.

"Even if we have an active hurricane season, the storms might not make landfall in Georgia," he said. "We (at the corps) are doing everything we can to raise the lake level, but Mother Nature is in control at this point."



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