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Drought, low water levels to linger at Lake Lanier
Summer full pool begins on Tuesday with lake 6 feet low
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Lanier’s level
Lake Lanier has rebounded from a low water level in 2008, but it has frequently stayed lower than full pool

Saturday night: 1065.15
May 1, 2011: 1071.07
May 1, 2010: 1071.77
May 1, 2009: 1063.88
May 1, 2008: 1057.61
May 1, 2007: 1068.41
May 1, 2006: 1068.79
May 1, 2005: 1071.06
May 1, 2004: 1070.44
May 1, 2003: 1072.63

Sources: U.S. Geological Society and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

For the past two years, Lake Lanier was just above the summer full pool of 1,071 feet above sea level at this time of year.

The North Georgia reservoir now stands at just above 1,065 feet, or 6 feet shy of the elevation mark, which takes effect on Tuesday, adjusting from the winter full pool of 1,070 feet.

And the elevation forecast from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District, shows a gradual downward trend. By May 25, the lake could sit slightly below 1,065 feet.

If such a pattern continues, “we may be in dire straits,” said Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. “In 2009, it was pretty bad, but that was the year it rained and (the lake) went back up.”

For the past year, most of Georgia has had some form of drought, with the worst conditions in South and Middle Georgia.

The Hall County area has slipped in and out of drought for the past 12 months, and, as of last week, ranged from abnormally dry to moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Instead of a typically rainy spring, recent weather has consisted mainly of low humidity and high winds, triggering fire danger alerts.

And looking ahead, summer months in North Georgia typically are hot and humid. They aren’t marked by steady rains, but rather thunderstorms that flare up in the afternoons.

“The forecast ... is to gradually move toward a slight, or weak, El Niño by the end of the summer,” State Climatologist Bill Murphey said. “That has a bigger impact on tropical activity.

“So, the way it looks now — since we aren’t getting abundant rainfall and good precipitation systems moving through the area — it’s probably going to take something like a tropical system to get us out of these (dry) conditions.

“The one thing about droughts is that it takes a long time to get into them, but it takes a long time to come out of them.”

The last time Lake Lanier was at full pool was May 1, 2011, when the elevation began its downward slide. The lake dropped to 1,057.92 feet on Nov. 26.

That trend prompted concerns the lake was headed back to the devastating 2007-09 drought, when the lake hit the historic low of 1,050.79 feet on Dec. 26, 2007.

That drought had a huge economic impact on businesses around the lake, which typically draws about 7 million-plus visitors per year.

“Right now, it’s fine, but if (the level) gets into the (lower) 1,060s and below that, then you really see the difference,” Dunlap said. “In those bad years (of the previous drought), the number of visitors was off about a million.”

If the current drought continues, “I think we’ll see that impact of visitors. Gas prices are going down a little bit, but we don’t want to get into that scenario of above $4 (per gallon) and a very low lake.”

Also crushing the economy around the lake during the 2007-09 drought were the effects of the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The economy is rebounding slowly, economists say, even though it’s far from full swing.

Another issue facing the lake is water releases.

Starting in the fall, the corps reduced water flow at Buford Dam, at the request of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which wanted to conserve water storage.

That was originally approved until the end of March.

The DNR sought and was granted a one-month extension of the reduced releases — 650 cubic feet per second, instead of 750 cfs.

That extension ends Monday.

Asked last week if the DNR plans to seek another extension, spokesman Kevin Chambers said, “We are monitoring stream flows and weather, and have not made a decision yet.”

E. Patrick Robbins, corps spokesman in Mobile, Ala., said in an interview earlier this month that the reduced releases could prove beneficial for the southern portion of the river system in the warmer months.

The corps predicts the upper portion of the water system, including Lake Lanier, will have a 50 percent chance of normal rainfall over the summer.

The southern portion, however, will see very little rain.

“The more water you can get into Lanier now, the more water you will have in the summer to meet any flow requirements downstream that can’t be met due to dry conditions,” Robbins said.

Meanwhile, Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association, an advocacy group that pushes for a healthy, full Lanier, “is still banging the 1,073 drum,” said Joanna Cloud, the group’s executive director.

She is referring to a push to increase the full pool to 1,073 feet, a proposal that has many supporters but that also has drawn some concerns about flood storage capacity.

Cloud said she is preparing to invite candidates in U.S., state and local races to attend the association’s annual membership meeting, set for May 24 at Gainesville State College.

“As part of that, we ask all of those candidates to submit written answers to a couple of lake-related questions,” she said. “One of the questions is specific to 1,073.”