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Business wanes as Lanier continues to drop
Local business owners hopeful winter rains will bring the lake up
Larry Brenner, right, owner of Oakwood Bait & Tackle on McEver Road, talks Thursday with customer Leon Padgett about the dangers of running a boat in the lake with such low levels. Padgett says he will not fish on Lake Lanier because he doesn’t want to damage his bass boat. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Area businesses see profits dropping as Lake Lanier does the same.

"Slowly, slowly, it's going to make things tougher and tougher for all of us, because a lot of the (fishermen) are going to be too scared to go out," said Larry Brenner, owner of Oakwood Bait & Tackle on McEver Road.

"The guys on the lake regularly will know where the dangerous spots are, but your normal weekend warrior ... is not going to go out anymore."

The lake, a main source of drinking water and recreation for metro Atlantans, also pumps money into the economy, thanks to a wide range of businesses — from fishing supplies to boat slips — on its shoreline, much of which spans Hall County's western half.

And it hasn't been doing too well, lately.

The lake stood at 1,058.19 feet above sea level Sunday evening, or nearly 13 feet below full pool and almost 8 feet from its historic low of 1,050.79 feet, set on Dec. 26, 2007.

Boat ramps are closing and more are close to that point as the lake continues to drain. And, increasingly, more of the shoreline is becoming exposed and connecting with islands that once had been submerged, making boat travel in some areas impossible.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have warned boaters to be extra cautious as they travel. A sudden meeting with tree stumps could make for an unpleasant outing.

"True fishermen are going to fish, no matter if the lake is up or low," said Kerry "Smokey" Hicks, owner of Smokin' Fisherman smoking and fishing supplies in Clermont. "Some of the other people, whose heart isn't in it as much, aren't going to."

He said the biggest problem he has seen is the economy.

"It's hitting harder than the lake," Hicks said.

"It's a lot worse than (during the 2007-09 drought). ... The lake came back up, but the economy never did."

Lake Lanier spent much of 2010 in or around full pool, but since it last was at 1,071 feet on May 1, levels have steadily dropped. Winter full pool of 1,070 feet begins Dec. 1.

Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said she is concerned about the lake's impact.

For one thing, businesses haven't fully recovered from the last drought.

"It's pretty serious. The conservation measures are still intact, but rain is the only thing that's going to help the situation," Dunlap said. "I think the corps is going to do whatever they can, but they can't, by law, plug (the lake) up for us.

"South Georgia is having a desperate drought, much more severe than we are, and that's the reason the system (of lakes) was built, whether we like it or not."

Philip Burton, a general partner of Gainesville Marina, said that from the last drought, "We tried to make ourselves as drought-resistant as possible," he said. "So far, we've been fortunate to only have to move one dock. Probably, we'll have to move a second dock.

"But, through the past drought and this drought, we're keeping everybody in the water and nobody is having to pull their boat because of the low water situation."

The marina is seeing an "upward trend in property owners around the lake going dry (with their docks) and bringing their boats in for storage," Burton said.

"That's one of those bittersweet things: It's good for us, but we hate to see our lake property owners have that burden put on them."

The corps has stopped issuing dock permits because of the low levels, a process it restarted after the last drought.

Alex Laidlaw, vice president of Westrec Marinas, which operates Holiday and Sunrise Cove marinas on Lanier, said the company spent $1 million in 2008 on dredging and moving docks.

"I'm much better prepared for the 1,050 (feet) eventuality today than I was then," he said. "That being said, it is still, from an economic standpoint, pretty disastrous.

"We're going to still be out a number of slips. We still have not recovered from the drought and then (effects from) the economic downturn."

Burton, as with others, is hoping for the best and that "these winter rains, as we got (last week), will start turning the lake around."

Recent rains have reversed a downward trend the past few days, by a few inches. And showers are in the forecast for the next few days, with the greatest chance for rain on Tuesday night, according to the National Weather Service in Peachtree City.

But forecasters are calling for a generally drier and warmer winter, thanks to a La Nina weather pattern, State Climatologist Bill Murphey said last week.

A possible twist in the weather outlook is the chance for a North Atlantic oscillation, a climate situation that occurs when a polar blast of air meets Gulf of Mexico moisture.

"That could give us brief periods of precipitation during the winter," Murphey said. "I wouldn't say (conditions will be) completely bone dry during the whole winter period."