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Experts say Lanier unlikely to rebound in 2012
Climate, water officials pessimistic lake can reach full pool next year
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Climate and water management officials are meeting today at Lake Lanier Islands Resort and say the lake is unlikely to rebound within the next year as the region's drought continues. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Climate and water management officials meeting at Lake Lanier Islands Resort this week are not optimistic the reservoir outside their windows has any chance of refilling soon.

Bailey Crane, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water management official who spoke to the group Thursday morning, said that even with normal rainfall in North Georgia in the coming months, Lanier has little chance of returning to full pool in the next year.

Crane was one of a number of speakers at a climate outlook forum sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Integrated Drought Information System.

The forum, which gathered scientists, water managers and state officials who seek to monitor the drought in the Southeast and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, continues today.

It is part of a pilot program to help water managers and state and public health officials to stay informed of developing drought conditions and manage water more wisely.

Climatologists and meteorologists at the forum predicted the drought in southwestern Georgia will continue to plague the river basin through spring.

Those predictions dried up any hope that Lanier may reach its winter full pool of 1,070 feet above sea level anytime soon. Lanier includes about 63 percent of the storage capacity of the entire basin.

River basins are supposed to enter a "recharge season" between November and March during which rainfall and lower temperatures allow lake levels and streams to recover from hot, dry summers, said Victor Murphy, a representative of the National Weather Service.

Yet that won't happen this year, he said.

"The ACF basin is pretty much dancing on the edge of a significant, long-term drought," Murphy said.

The impacts of the current drought have hit agriculture in Southwest Georgia and Southeast Alabama particularly hard, said Brenda Ortiz, a professor of agronomy at Auburn University.

Cotton, corn and peanut growers were forced to irrigate much more than normal this year, she said. Some farmers abandoned their fields altogether.

Peanut growers, who normally don't need to irrigate for
germination, had to do so this year, according to Ortiz.

Ortiz also reported a higher incidence of aflatoxins, a fungus driven by heat and drought that infects grains, in southern Alabama.

Endangered mussels have suffered as some of the creeks in the Flint basin hit record lows as the drought pressed on this summer, Stephen Golladay, a scientist at the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway.

"We're in a California condor-type situation with some of these mussel species," Golladay said.

The basin is experiencing its second year of a La Niña weather pattern, which produces drier and warmer than normal conditions in the Southeastern United States.

Much of Georgia is facing extreme drought conditions, with the hardest hit areas in the east, central and southwest portions of the state, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Though Hall County and other counties surrounding Lanier are in much better shape, with drought conditions rated abnormally dry to severe, the persistence of the drought in the southern reaches of the ACF basin have taken a toll on Lanier's level, Crane said.

As of 6 p.m. Thursday, the lake was at 1,058.32 feet.
The state was supposed to have some relief last summer, but never got it. Typically, a La Niña weather pattern can produce above-average rainfall in the Southeast during the summertime.

But this year, the La Niña weather pattern neutralized, creating dry conditions throughout the summer as well as the dry conditions it was expected to create in the winter and spring.

As a result, October 2010 through September 2011 was the fourth driest year in both Georgia's and Florida's histories, said Klaus Wolter, a researcher for the NOAA Environmental Science Research Lab in Boulder, Colo.
And as the winter weather pattern for this year moves into another La Niña, dry conditions are expected through spring.

No one at Thursday's forum was willing to predict what might happen beyond spring. There were only predictions of what factors might sway the weather afterward.

Though drought is supposed to persist or intensify in Southwest Georgia, future drought conditions in North Georgia might be mitigated by normal rainfall next year.

The only hope for the entire basin in the coming months might be that this year's La Niña is weaker than last year's, Wolter said.

"If next spring is wet, it might be an indicator that La Niña is on its way out," Wolter said.

Wolter, who originally predicted a second year of a La Niña weather pattern for the basin, said it is not as likely that the basin would experience a third year of the dry weather pattern.

If the pattern changes to El Niño, the ACF basin could recover from the drought next year, Wolter said. El Niño patterns produce wetter and cooler than normal weather in the Southeast.

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