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Biologists say corps can keep more water in Lanier, other Georgia reservoirs
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Listen to U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, react to Monday’s decision that could let Lanier and other Georgia reservoirs keep more water.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday released a biological opinion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Modified Interim Operating Plan for water releases at Jim Woodruff Dam into the Apalachicola River, saying it would not reduce the likelihood of survival for federally protected species.

A spokesman for the corps in Mobile, Ala., said that since the Fish and Wildlife Service did not present objections, the operating plan would go into effect immediately. The previous interim operating plan, which was adopted in November, expired Sunday.

The good news for Lake Lanier and other Georgia reservoirs on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint system is that 50 percent of the inflows can be retained in the basin.

"Under the previous interim operating plan, we could only keep 30 percent of basin inflows. Everything else had to be passed down," said Patrick Robbins, a spokesman for the corps in Mobile.

The reaction to the news depended on which side of the Florida line it came from.

Grier Todd of Lake Lanier Islands said he was pleased at the inflow retention.

"Anything we can do to keep more water in the lake is encouraging," Todd said.

The 1,100-acre island resort had become a peninsula as the low levels of Lanier made walking from the shore to the islands easily accomplished.

Florida environmental officials were not pleased by the release of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s opinion.

"We are disappointed with today’s recommendation," said Michael W. Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Services. He said that flows below 5,000 cubic feet per second will "allow elevated salinity in the river and the bay and threaten the health of federally listed threatened and endangered species."

U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, said the new plan is a move in the right direction.

"That doesn’t mean that I am satisfied," Deal said. "I’m going to continue to monitor and continue to press on every issue to maintain the integrity of Lake Lanier. I think the corps understands that."

Earlier this year, Deal began preliminary efforts to restart an abandoned federal plan calling for dams on the Flint River, which flows unimpeded from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to the Florida line where it joins the Chattahoochee to form the Apalachicola.

"It is not feasible to only depend only on the Chattahoochee basin to augment flowage downstream," Deal said.

He said the system needs at least two of the three Flint reservoirs, which Jimmy Carter fought as governor and president.

Deal’s counterpart on the panhandle, U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., criticized the plan, saying the corps was using "interim approaches that reward the state of Georgia for failing to plan for their water needs."

The biological opinion will be in effect for five years, unless significant new information on predicted hydrology or the listed species prompts a reinitiation of consultation, or the corps completes its water control plan revision.

One thing that could bring a change is implementation of new water control manuals for the river system, something that has been long advocated by U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

"I am eager to see a more comprehensive, long-term solution put in place through the development of new master control manuals for the ACF basin," Chambliss said Monday. "That process will focus not just on effects of operating plans on certain species, but also balance the human and economic needs of the system."

The endangered species identified in Apalachicola Bay include the Fat Threeridge mussel, Chipola Slabshell and Purple Bankclimber, as well as the Gulf sturgeon.

"This opinion relies once again on the best available science and data for its conclusions," said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We will continue to work with the corps to use adaptive management, so when new data becomes available and as conditions change, we will collaborate to assess the situation and adapt to best meet the needs of the many users of the system."

The revised plan provides increased storage throughout the system — water stored at Lanier, West Point and Walter F. George. Hamilton said that there is a need for a longer-term solution.

"Water use planning needs to be a higher priority for the states and agencies," Hamilton said. "This proposal is but another step in a long series of challenges dealing with a limited resource. The time is now for the three states to develop a more sustainable plan."

Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, said the governor is hopeful that the plan will help restore Lanier.

"Our hope is the revised interim operations plan, combined with our ongoing conservation efforts, will help Lake Lanier begin to continue to recover and restore the headwaters of the entire ACF basin," Brantley said.

Kit Dunlap, chairwoman of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, said the environmental decision was correct.

"We want to do what’s right, but what they’ve done in reducing the flows has not hurt the wildlife," Dunlap said.

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