Lake Lanier is almost 2 feet lower than it was at the start of November due at least in part to an increase in the amount of water released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps announced in late October that it would release more water from Lanier and West Point Lake because of drought conditions affecting the river basin in Georgia, eastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
Lisa Parker, a spokeswoman for the corps, said in October that water would leave Lanier at a rate of 2,500 cubic feet per second, up from the minimum release of 1,100 cfs. Through Nov. 11, the corps has released an average of about 3,489 cfs.
The corps expects Lanier to drop 6 inches each week at the current release rate. West Point Lake is estimated to lose 1 foot weekly.
The extra water being released is required due to “the needs within the basins, whether it’s hydropower, fish and wildlife or water quality and flow,” Parker said on Tuesday. “Basically we’re receiving negative inflows from the Flint (River) so we’re having to pull from the Chattahoochee (River).”
The Flint flows from south of Atlanta through central and south Georgia and joins the Chattahoochee at Lake Seminole. From there, they flow as the Apalachicola south to the Gulf of Mexico.
“The problem is there’s no impoundments that the corps manages on the Flint system,” Parker said. She also pointed out that the corps has drawn down Walter F. George Lake, located along the border between Alabama and Georgia, as much as it can.
The corps is required by law to release at least 4,500 cfs out of Woodruff Dam on Lake Seminole because of the endangered species that make their home in the southern end of the river system.
Lanier’s level was at 1,059.50 feet above sea level on Tuesday evening, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was 1,061.53 at the same time on Nov. 1. Summer full pool is 1,071 and winter full pool is 1,070.
“Obviously we’d like to see it up at 1,070, but historically this time of the year it would be around 1,065,” Parker said. “So about 6 feet below at this time of year. Basically we’re in continued, sustained drought this year.”
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s Nov. 6 report, Hall County is not in a drought, but is “abnormally dry.”
Portions of central and western Georgia are classified as being in “extreme” and “exceptional” drought.
Joanna Cloud, executive director of the Lake Lanier Association, said the group is disappointed at the lower lake level, but also sees some positives.
“The good news is that we are higher, by about 6 feet, than we were back in the 2007-2008 drought,” Cloud said. “Basically, we are experiencing our second ‘100-year drought’ in five years right now.”
Cloud said winter months often bring a lower lake level, with November and December being the lowest points of the lake’s cycle.
Sustained rain is the only answer to the problem, Parker said.
The release rate will stay around current levels “until we receive rains in the southern portion of the (river) system,” she said.
“We’d need a sustainable rain for maybe 24 to 48 hours,” she said. “That’s generally how the basins are replenished.”
Cloud said the area was “bailed out” of the 2007-2008 drought by a tropical depression, and she believes prolonged rain would help the lake’s level.
While rain would help raise the level, Lanier only has 6 percent of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin watershed, according to Cloud.
“There’s not a lot of watershed area (for the lake),” she said. “It’s what is going to make it harder for us to recover.”
Lanier accounts for more than 60 percent of the basin’s water storage, despite the small watershed area, Cloud added.
“Any time there’s a crisis south of us, we’re getting tapped,” she said.