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Hall County a was reluctant backer of Lake Lanier

POSTED: November 16, 2008 5:00 a.m.

In these drought-driven days, we're pretty much together in North Georgia in the never-ending tug-of-war over water in the Chattahoochee River basin, which forms Lake Lanier.

Used to be we'd fuss with Atlanta about how much water it was using. But now so many consider us part of Atlanta, and therefore part of the problem, that we've ended up on the same side in Georgia's battles with Alabama and Florida over water that originates within our boundaries.

In the early serious talks about damming the Chattahoochee at Buford, Hall County was a reluctant party to the negotiations. It wasn't sure it wanted thousands of acres of rich bottomland tilled by its farmers to be flooded. After all, this was a prime agricultural county in the 1940s with a two-lane road the only real connection to the then-distant metropolitan area. Cotton, corn and other row crops filled the lowlands along the Chattahoochee and other streams.

Even the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce wasn't quite on board with the dam because of adverse effects on farming, a fluctuating lake level, loss of industry, more expensive sewage disposal, damages to the road system and even the threat of mosquitoes.

Hall's hedging on the dam came to a head when the three major entities pushing for it - Atlanta, Forsyth and Gwinnett counties - called a summit meeting in Lawrenceville of all involved including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It was so intense it lasted four hours and didn't adjourn until midnight.

For those who today suggest that water supply wasn't a priority for the dam, look back at that 1949 meeting when then-Mayor W.B. Hartsfield of Atlanta rose to declare: "Atlanta and Georgia need the water supplied by the Chattahoochee, and here we have one of the greatest rainfall areas in America waiting to be tapped. To be valuable to industry, the flow of the river must be constant, and the Buford Dam is the key structure in providing that."

Hartsfield and others tried to ease Hall County's concerns about fluctuations in the lake level. He wanted retention dams built to keep the lake from going up and down so drastically. That would enhance what would become Lake Lanier as a prime recreation attraction with much of its shoreline in Hall County.

W.H. Slack Jr., who headed the Gainesville chamber's Buford Dam committee, told the meeting Hall County wasn't fighting the dam, but wanted others to know of its concerns. He pointed out 26,000 acres of the 45,000 acres to be flooded were in Hall County.

"We are going to lose 500 farm families who do an estimated $750,000 worth of trading in Gainesville every year," he said. "We will suffer from this, and we don't think recreation income will take its place."

He also pushed for retention dams, pointed out tax losses into the thousands and up to $1 million to pay for new sewage disposal. Hall Countians even suggested that the dam be built near Roswell, an original proposed site.

Gainesville merchant H.H. Estes, another chamber of commerce stalwart, joined in the Hall County delegation's skepticism. Saying Hall County had everything to lose by the dam, he asked the Atlanta area representatives for cooperation now, before the dam would be built, rather than later. That set off a back-and-forth exchange between him and Mayor Hartsfield, who said, "You'll find this is the greatest thing that ever happened to Hall County."

Anyway, Hartsfield said, the dam is inevitable, and the corps of engineers backed him up. L.M. McClain, president of the Gwinnett chamber, trying to smooth the waters, asked if those present were for the dam in principle. "No!" a Hall County representative answered.

But of course, the dam happened as Hall County's resistance eventually dissolved. Some of the fears raised by the local delegation indeed materialized. Lake Lanier did adversely affect agriculture and the road system, despite bridges built to cross it. Sewage disposal did become more expensive, though federal dollars helped.

And fluctuation of the lake level continues to be a big problem affecting the local economy, including real estate, tourism, restaurants, boat dealers, marinas and other recreation interests. Few, however, would want to do without Lake Lanier today.

As for mosquitoes, lake lovers just swat them away as part of the price for having such an asset close enough to dip their toes in.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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