GAINESVILLE — When you’re talking about a lake that covers more than 38,000 acres and can hold 362 billion gallons of water, what difference does it make if the lake level drops an inch or two?
Plenty, to the people who have been anxiously keeping score. Late Monday night, Lake Lanier fell to 1,052.62 feet above sea level, surpassing its previous record low set on Dec. 24, 1981.
What concerns many folks is that, unlike 26 years ago, Lanier is continuing to drop. With a dry winter predicted, no one knows how much farther the lake may fall, even though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed last week to slow down releases of water from Buford Dam.
"Releases should have been cut back a couple months ago," said Philip Burton, owner of Gainesville Marina. "If we’re already at a record low, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say, ‘Hey, we’re there now. Stop!’"
He said he was "shocked" at how much the corps has been letting out of Lanier to serve needs downstream in Florida.
"I think it’s sad that we’ve gotten to this point by wasting so much water," he said. "During the 2000 drought, our lake was managed better. It was two or three feet higher than it is today. If the corps continues on the path they’re on now, it’s going to be devastating to the lake, to the recreation economy and to the real estate economy."
Burton said his marina is in "crisis management mode."
"We’re doing what we can to survive," he said. "Boat sales are almost nonexistent."
Other lake-dependent businesses are similarly affected, he said. "And (Hall) county is not going to get that (tax) revenue, because people are selling their boats."
Nick Martin, whose family has run a boat-dock business on Lanier since 1956, before the lake was full, said the historic drought has shone a spotlight on how the lake’s water level is managed.
"Why weren’t we doing this two or three years ago? We’ve known this could happen," he said. "In the long run, this may turn into a blessing. Sometimes it takes a disaster to get things changed. The wheels don’t start turning without political pressure."
While Martin welcomes the news that the corps will cut back on releases from the dam, he believes the federal agency should do more.
"While the lake is down, this would be a good opportunity to dredge it out, get rid of the sediment, and create more storage in the coves that are too shallow," he said.
Darcie Holcomb, director of headwaters conservation for Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in Gainesville, thinks that is a worthy idea and wonders why government officials aren’t discussing it.
"To me, they should be dredging out coves rather than rushing to build more reservoirs," she said. "Dredging would temporarily stir up sediment, but it can be done in a way that would minimize harm to the environment. We need to be thinking outside the box on this issue."
Martin said he doesn’t lay all the blame for the lake’s predicament with the corps. There’s only so much the government can do if the climate won’t cooperate.
"We’ve always figured we have plenty of water, that we’ll never run out," Martin said. "We’ve been in droughts before, but nothing like this."
Even though no one is buying new docks right now, Martin Docks has still been doing business with people who need their docks moved or repaired. But the low lake has affected the company’s bottom line.
"It’s costly, and it’s dangerous," Martin said. "We’re breaking at least a propeller a week, because our work boats are hitting objects just below the water. And we’re using more fuel because sometimes the boats have to go the long way around in order to get places."
In some areas, the lake is looking more like a series of ponds.
"I’ve had to move my dock out over 100 feet already," said longtime lake resident Augie DeAugustinis. "Now the other side of the lake is coming over to meet us."
He said he is saddened by the sight of the shrinking lake. "Everybody is upset with the fact that the corps is mandated to keep releasing (a certain amount of) water, and these federal mandates leave no room for flexibility."
DeAugustinis thinks the scariest time may come not now but next spring.
"I think there’s going to be a ripple effect on the entire North Georgia area if we don’t get significant rain this winter," he said. "If we lose the lake as an economic generator, that impact will be transferred to homeowners. I feel really bad for anyone who has to sell their home right now."
An even more frightening prospect, he said, is that this scenario could repeat itself with increasing frequency in the future.
"If, 20 years from now, we have a population of 8 million in metro Atlanta, where’s the water going to come from?" DeAugustinis said.
That’s a question Kit Dunlap has to ask herself every day. She serves both as president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.
"We’ve known this day was coming, and we know (the lake) is going to get a lot lower before it gets better," she said. "Unfortunately, I don’t think we can conserve our way out of this."
However, Dunlap believes that if every Georgian learns to use water more wisely, we might be able to avoid future shortages.
"I was here back in December 1981, and I don’t recall there was much emphasis on water conservation," she said. "I think it’s good that we’re all talking about it now. We need to quit pointing fingers and see how we can work together. Out of crisis, there is opportunity."
Gainesville City Council member George Wangemann said his "heart sank" when he heard about Lanier’s record low level.
"I hate it for the people who are most directly affected," he said. "But my instinct is not to put blame on anyone. This drought situation shows how powerless we are. I think most of our citizens are being good stewards of the water that is left in the lake. But we’ve realized that this is in the hands of the Lord, and we can only pray that the rain will come."
Phil Hudgins, who has lived in the Little River area of Lanier for much of the past 40 years, calls the situation "kind of scary."
"So much of our tourism and economy in Gainesville depends on the lake," he said. "I’m surprised that there isn’t any sort of contingency plan in place. Everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon (for water conservation) now, but there should have been some forethought."
Frank Norton Jr., a Gainesville real estate executive who writes an annual economic forecast, sees this crisis as "a tipping point" for action.
"My greatest fear is that the lake never comes back up, that at some point (the corps) will say it’s going to stay at 1,055," he said. "But I don’t think that will happen. I think we’re going to see more reservoirs built, more conservation initiatives, more searching for alternative sources of water."
But not everyone sees the situation as a crisis. Bill Vanderford, who’s been a fishing guide on Lanier for 37 years, thinks the issue has been blown out of proportion by the media.
"Everybody’s panicking, but it’s all perception," he said. "Our business has been hurt somewhat, but only because people read the newspapers and think all the water’s gone."
He said the reaction was the same when the previous record low was set in 1981. "The newspapers back then were acting like it was the end of the world," he said.
Vanderford acknowledges that the financial impact of the drought will be severe.
"It’s bad for businesses around the lake. They’re going to be in dire straits," he said. "It’s also hard for the people who have (lake) homes and docks. But the hardship is only on humans. It’s not affecting the wildlife at all."
In fact, Vanderford said this is a great time to be on the lake — if you can get to it.
"The fishing is fantastic," he said. "The problem is there’s not enough boat ramps (still open). But people with four-wheel drives are just backing right down into the lake (bypassing the ramps)."
Diehard anglers are going to keep coming to Lanier. But Vanderford recommends they use a guide if they’re not familiar with the lake’s topography. "It can be dangerous with all the stuff that’s sticking up out of the water."
On the other hand, he’s become fascinated with what’s being revealed as the water recedes.
"It’s really kind of educational to me," he said. "I’m curious to learn where all the old homesteads and other things are. And the people who go around (the lakeshore) with metal detectors are having a blast right now."
And maybe that’s the right attitude to take, because all the lawsuits and congressional hearings in the world cannot put an end to the drought.
"There’s nothing the corps or anyone else can do if we don’t get rain," Vanderford said. "It’s Mother Nature doing her thing. It’s not global warming or anything else. It’s just a cycle."