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Four years after last drought, Lanier dangerously low

Dry 2012 at lake sparks concern, not panic

POSTED: November 19, 2011 11:26 p.m.

Lanier's low water levels

Watch a tour of shallow and treacherous areas on Lake Lanier, as provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

After a long dry spell Lake Lanier water levels are beginning to drop quickly. At Thompson Bridge Park, low water levels expose the dry lake bed beneath at a nearby shallow water marker.

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Four years ago this week, Georgians stood on the steps of the Capitol and asked God to make it rain.

At the time, residents of more than 60 counties in northern and western Georgia, facing a record drought and a threatened water source, were forbidden from nearly all outdoor water use.

Lake Lanier, which supplies nearly half the state's population with drinking water, had sunk 18 feet below its 1,071 full pool level and showed no signs of recovery.

And as the state's climatologist was predicting a drier than normal winter, the only hope for reprieve seemed to be from the heavens.

Today, Lake Lanier sits at 1,058 feet above sea level — not the 2007 low but an eye-catching 13 feet below full pool.

Weather predictions for this winter are much the same as they were four years ago.

By mid-December, the lake is expected to sink to 1,055 feet, according to forecasts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake.

Allen Barnes, head of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, already is seeking the mercy of the corps to curb the amount of water released from the reservoir.

The request is similar to one made by the state in 2008.

But no one is praying for rain yet in North Georgia — at least not publicly on the steps of the Capitol.

Aside from Barnes' letter, the desperation of the drought of 2007-08 is missing on nearly all levels of government.

State officials say their peace comes in part from year-old legislation that mandates water conservation.

Instead of cutting outdoor water use in times of drought, watering now is limited to evening and early morning hours, with a few exceptions.

"In 2007, there were no laws on the books requiring conservation, so they required regulation," said Brian Robinson, the chief spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal.

"Since then ... conservation is the law of the state."

Locally, water officials are not dealing with the water demands they had prior to the last drought, according to data provided by Gainesville's Public Utilities Department, the largest water provider in Hall County.

Lanier is the sole water source for the city department.

"People are using water a lot more wisely," said Kelly Randall, director of Gainesville's Public Utilities Department and the city's water department.

But the economy can be blamed nearly as much as conservation.

"We've had a lot of restaurants close," said Randall.

"... The construction industry, which is virtually nonexistent today compared to what it was, uses a lot of water. I think all that new construction also calls for a lot of new plantings."

Four years after the last lake-dropping drought, the conditions are no doubt different.

The drought, then centered in North Georgia, now is anchored in Southwest Georgia, which is nearly 2 feet below normal rainfall.

Though some level of drought affects nearly all areas of the state — Hall County's classifications range from "moderate" to "severe" — a map of conditions in the state on the National Integrated Drought Information System's website paints areas to the south of Hall in an "extreme" drought situation.

Parts of the drought-stricken Flint River - which meets the Chattahoochee a few hundred miles south of Lanier's Buford Dam on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico - reached historic lows over the summer, according to unconfirmed data kept by the U.S. Geological Survey.

If the corps is hesitant to approve the state's request to reduce water flowing from Lanier, the Flint's contribution to what becomes the Apalachicola River at the Florida state line might be why.

The Chattahoochee and the Flint rivers converge at the corners of Florida, Georgia and Alabama, holding for a brief period of time behind Jim Woodruff Dam before becoming the Apalachicola River.

Their water supports the sensitive ecological systems in Florida's panhandle and affect the balance of fresh and salt water upon which Apalachicola Bay's oyster industry relies.

The stream flow corps officials seek below Jim Woodruff Dam, where the Apalachicola begins, is 5,000 cubic feet per second.

Today, that flow requirement relies heavily on water that comes from Lake Lanier, which has about 70 percent of the river basin's storage capacity.

"You're getting extremely, extremely low flows out of the Flint River, so it's not contributing hardly anything to the flow system right now," corps spokesman Pat Robbins said this week. "If there's extremely low flows on the Flint and you still have the 5,000 cfs requirement at Jim Woodruff (dam), that water has to come from the Chattahoochee."

While the state awaits an answer from the corps, the state's future access to its water remains uncertain, nearly as much so as four years ago.

Though the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dealt Georgia a victory last summer in a ruling in the legal battle between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over use of the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, Alabama has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Negotiations between the governors of the three states have also yet to produce definitive results. Any congressional direction over the way the three states should share water likely will depend on those talks and the decision of the courts, according to Georgia's two Republican senators.

"There is no question that Lake Lanier must supply water to Atlanta now and in the future," Sen. Saxby Chambliss said in a statement. "I will continue to support our governor in his ongoing negotiations with (Florida and Alabama) and am hopeful that the three states will come to an agreement."

Sen. Johnny Isakson said in a statement he believes his job, "is to do all that I can to support Gov. Deal" in the talks.

"I am optimistic that all three states will reach an agreement that is in the best interest of all Georgia stakeholders while at the same time respecting the interests and concerns of Florida and Alabama," Isakson said.

In the meantime, state officials have promised to spend $300 million for future water supply projects in the next four years. The plan is available for public comment.

But as the level of Lake Lanier continues to drop, there is no immediate remedy, but also no panic.

"If the lake was 5 feet lower than it is today, I think people would be talking quite a bit," Randall said. "I think at this point, were still hopeful that we'll get some rains."



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