The drought of 1980-81 didn’t seem to produce the sense of urgency that has followed the current dry spell and plummeting level of Lake Lanier.
Marinas and other businesses around the lake complained about the drastically dropping lake. The City of Cumming, as it does today, worried about its intake pipes reaching far enough to withdraw water for its customers.
Boaters and fishers had to search for enough ramps to launch their boats. But there was no noise from Florida about endangered mussels and sturgeon. Maybe they weren’t endangered then. The main issue downstream seemed to be having enough water in the river for barge navigation south of Columbus.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned Labor Day boaters in 1981 to watch for hidden obstructions in Lake Lanier because the water level fell 3 feet in August to 1,062 feet above sea level against the normal 1,071. But it didn’t urge conservation or seem particularly worried about water supply. September rainfall came in at 4.71 inches against the normal 3.67, so people probably thought the lake would begin refilling.
As the lake level continued to drop despite the rain, more concern began to be expressed. The state Department of Natural Resources urged water conservation, though the threat of mandatory restrictions was barely mentioned. Nora Mills, the historic grain mill on the Chattahoochee River, had to shut down because the stream fell to a trickle.
But an editorial in The Times discounted a water crisis as October rainfall measured just a quarter inch below normal.
Lake Lanier, however, continued its plunge to the record level that would come in late December. November rainfall was half of normal, and the year’s total by then was 17 inches below average. Meteorologists said the preceding 12 months were the driest in 100 years, and North Georgia was in a two-year drought.
After that, some cities spoke of the possibility of water rationing as wells began to run dry, along with small reservoirs and the larger lakes like Lanier.
That was a quarter century ago. Tons of people have moved around and near Lake Lanier since. Thousands more boats and docks crowd the shoreline. New industry and businesses have sucked up their share of the diminishing water supply.
The 2006-07 drought has produced extensive newspaper coverage as well as wall-to-wall television reports. The record low-lake level in December 1981 didn’t exactly sneak up on people, and they weren’t blasé about it, but the interest, finger-pointing and calls for action didn’t seem to be as intense as today when another record falls along with Lake Lanier.
Johnny Vardeman is a previous editor of The Times and was the paper’s editor in 1981 when the lake hit its previous low.