While placing temporary hazard markers in the lake on Wednesday, natural resource specialist Michael Hatcher’s boat got stuck on a sandy hill just below the surface.
Two days before, he was able to drive right through.
Revving the boat’s engine, Hatcher was determined to make it across to the other side, where deeper water awaited.
Despite having a strong propeller, the boat wouldn’t budge, forcing him to retrace his steps and find a more navigable route.
With the lake 14 feet below normal pool, submerged hilltops and tree stumps are becoming more and more of a problem, as well as a hazard, to boaters.
"It’s not safe out here," Hatcher said as he headed out to Aqualand Marina, where a caller had reported a submerged hilltop.
Boaters often aren’t able to spot them and don’t know to look for discoloration in the water, he said.
Within a few seconds of nearing the area, Hatcher’s navigation system showed the water level drop from 90 feet to four.
"I’m really glad that the guy called this one in," Hatcher said as he dropped the first buoy.
Hatcher said the corps often relies on the public to let them know where potential lake hazards are.
Some areas are more safe than others.
Hatcher said people need to stay in the river channels.
"There aren’t any hazards directly in those river channels," he said. "That’s where your deepest water is."
Hatcher said to avoid any areas off the main river and creek channels.
The area north of Browns Bridge Road, known as "north lake," is more dangerous than the area south of the bridge.
However, no matter how low the lake gets, "It’ll never be declared unnavigable," Hatcher said.
The corps has taken several steps to ensure peoples’ safety while out on the lake.
In addition to placing about 140 hazard buoys around the lake, the corps has closed almost all boat ramps.
Only six out of 53 are currently open.
The ramp closures affect the corps as much as everyone else. Instead of launching his boat at Buford Dam, Hatcher must drive five or 10 miles to launch his boat off the Old Federal Park ramp.
Another safety measure was the corps’ decision to stop issuing permits for night fishing tournaments. They can still be held during the day.
In the past, Hatcher said people have had boat wrecks involving underwater hazards because it caught them off guard.
Now, they are more aware of the potential dangers. He said he knows of no underwater hazard-related wrecks this year.
Despite lake levels at record lows, "The corps has kept the water flowing," Hatcher said. "We’re just in uncharted territory right now and people are panicking."
In the meantime, Hatcher said boaters need to be especially careful of potential hazards, to follow lake safety rules and wear life jackets at all times.
"Try to stick to the river and creek channels if at all possible," he said.
Hatcher said a lot of the buoys have been placed around the lake with the thought that it will eventually rise again.
"One wet winter and we’re back where we’re supposed to be," he said. "We feel positive that things are going to turn around."