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Officials expect a lively, crowded lake for holiday

POSTED: July 8, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Mark Kirves scrubs the top deck of his 86-foot Sumerset houseboat Thursday afternoon at Gainesville Marina as he readies the vessel for the long holiday weekend.

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Don’t expect solitude if you go to Lake Lanier this weekend.

Despite the lake level being almost 15 feet below full pool, officials anticipate crowds today and throughout the July Fourth holiday weekend.

Michael Lapina, a ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Buford Dam, believes many people will take advantage of the fact that July Fourth is on a Friday, giving them three consecutive days off work.

"It’s been a while since we’ve had a Friday Fourth," he said. "The busiest one we had recently was when the Fourth was on a Monday."

Lapina expects most of the Lanier campgrounds to be full for the weekend. However, it’s less clear how many people will come to the day-use parks for picnicking or swimming.

"There has been extra room this year for picnicking," he said. "Visitation was down a moderate amount at some of our recreation areas compared to previous years. I think it’s more because of the lake being low than because of the economy."

While the shrinking lake means there’s less competition for picnic tables, Lapina said it’s created a bottleneck at the boat ramps.

"Because there are so few boat ramps open, the ones that are open are extremely busy," Lapina said. "And typically on a holiday weekend, the boat ramps will fill up even when the lake is full."

He advises anyone who wants to launch a boat to arrive early. And all of the people who will be riding in the boat should meet at another location, if possible, and carpool together to the boat ramp, so there’s only one vehicle taking up space in the parking lot.

Lapina said a number of rangers will be working overtime this weekend, especially tonight, when many visitors will be watching fireworks displays from lakeside parks or from their boats.

"The parks typically close at 10 p.m., but for the fireworks, rangers will usually allow a little leeway until it’s over," he said.

Boaters need to be sure their running lights are working, he warned. With the lake level so low, there are hidden obstacles just below the water’s surface that could seriously damage a boat.

And while it’s OK to explore Lanier’s islands, Lapina said, you can’t camp on them.

"You can pull your boat up on the island and sleep inside the boat, but you can’t pitch a tent. Also, no open fires are allowed on the islands," he said.

With the ongoing drought, even people who are staying in designated campgrounds or just picnicking for the day need to be cautious about fires.

"Even in a grill, fires should not be left unattended," Lapina said.

Visitors to any corps property need to remember a few other rules, he added. "You can’t bring your own personal fireworks. And no guns or alcohol. The rangers will be enforcing that regulation."

There are no restrictions on where people can swim. But since all the designated swimming areas are dry, visitors should know that the lake bottom is unpredictable and can slope sharply.

Lapina strongly recommends life jackets for all swimmers.

"Folks need to be aware of the potential for steep drop-offs," he said.

Meanwhile, the lake’s marinas are expecting a steady flow of customers, despite the drought and high gas prices.

"We’re hoping for a big weekend," said Philip Burton, owner of Gainesville Marina. "People were a little apprehensive back in the spring, but we’re actually seeing a little more traffic since Memorial Day. It probably reflects people deciding to stay closer to home. I think they’re just not traveling very far."

Burton said as long as boats can get access to the water, "there’s a lot of lake out there still to be used."

He said the lake level won’t deter holiday boaters, but the threat of rain might.

"Weather will play as big a role as any other factor," he said.

Sean Ryan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, said the weekend will not be a washout, though some on-and-off rain is expected.

"(Today), an isolated thunderstorm is not out of the question," he said. "But the rainiest day looks to be Saturday, with a 50 percent chance of showers. On Sunday, it’s about 40 percent. The storms will be mainly in the afternoon and evening, and the rain probably won’t last too long."

That’s great news for visitors, not so great for the lake.

"These storms won’t put a significant dent in the rainfall deficit," Ryan said.



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