Five years after hitting its historic low, Lake Lanier’s water level is back to exposing shorelines and raising concerns about safety and property values.
“The only cure for our problem is rain and it will come,” said David Lyle, a Gainesville lake dweller. “People like us who love the lake will persevere.”
It’s been a yo-yo five years for the North Georgia reservoir, the main drinking water source for metro Atlanta counties. Fluctuating levels have persisted since the lake drained to 1,050.79 feet above sea level on Dec. 26, 2007.
Full pool, which is 1,071 feet May 1-Nov. 30 and 1,070 feet Dec. 1- April 30, was reached on Oct. 14, 2009 and stayed at or near that level through mid-2010.
Since then, through periods of rain and dry conditions, the lake has dropped steadily back into the 1,050-foot range. Lanier was at 1,056.65 feet on Friday.
The 2007-09 drought’s timing couldn’t have been worse, coinciding with the Great Recession and amid skyrocketing gas prices. Low water levels and economic worries hit businesses hard around Lanier, especially marinas.
Beyond the dollar’s impact, the drought also prompted state conservation measures and threw fire on an already inflamed debate between Georgia and neighbors Alabama and Florida over water sharing.
Lake level fluctuations “certainly has been a hardship on our members,” said Joanna Cloud, executive director of the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association.
“There’s a property investment there,” she said. “Those docks need to be moved in and out, and that is not an easy task. It’s not like moving a car in your driveway. There’s quite a few of our members who are elderly and can’t do it.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which governs Lanier, has tried to issue the remaining dock permits on Lake Lanier but has been unable to because of the fluctuations. That process will resume once the lake returns to — and stays consistently at — 1,064 feet above sea level or higher.
The drought prompted the creation of another lake-based group, 1071 Coalition, which sought to preserve ways for Lanier to stay as healthy and as close to full pool as possible. That group, led by marina executive Alex Laidlaw, financed a study to determine the drought’s economic impact on Lanier.
“We took some pretty significant action in 2007 and 2008 in terms of dredging and getting our docks positioned to where they needed to be,” Laidlaw said.
As the water level began its descent the past couple of years, “we were much better prepared to deal with low water based on what happened (then),” he said.
“I think this is the new normal. I think we’re going to see probably lower lake levels because of everything that’s going on down south of us for some time to come,” Laidlaw said.
“I don’t know what fixes that, frankly, with the Flint River not having an impoundment and a way to control that river in terms of its inflows. When it goes dry, it’s going to come from Lanier.”
That certainly has been the case recently.
Lake Lanier is at the northern end of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin. Middle and South Georgia have endured particularly tough drought conditions the past couple of years, putting more pressure on Lanier.
Plus, earlier this year, the corps announced that more water would flow out of the dam that marks the start of the Apalachicola River to protect endangered species downstream.
Those changes, corps officials said, came after they spent more than a year consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the status of threatened and endangered species in the river.
“It is important to recognize that Congress envisioned and authorized the ACF as a system of projects that would be operated interdependently,” said Patrick Robbins, corps spokesman for the Mobile District.
“For instance, since Lake Lanier has the majority of the system storage, it was always envisioned that this storage would be drawn upon to meet system requirements downstream.”
The drought also sparked talk and a renewed push for raising Lake Lanier’s full pool another 2 feet, a move that advocates say would have the same effect as creating a 26-billion-gallon reservoir.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who is from Hall County and entered office in 2011, launched a four-year plan to spend $300 million on projects expected to help boost Georgia’s water supply.
This summer, the state awarded its first $100 million to build new reservoirs and water supply projects across the state, including $4.4 million to the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority to buy and connect a supply well, steps the authority has taken in past weeks.
In October, Deal told The Times he believed a state partnership with Hall County on Glades Reservoir is something “that needs to be explored.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently evaluating the environmental and social impacts of building the 850-acre reservoir.
Plans call for damming up a portion of Flat Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River, to store enough water to provide the county with about 70 million gallons of water a day.
Deal “is looking for solutions that will assure Georgia’s water supply through 2050,” said his spokesman, Brian Robinson. “He’s worked as governor to expand the state’s water capacity with reservoirs, wells and greater water storage capacity.
“We know that Lake Lanier cannot be the primary source of metro Atlanta’s water forever, and we need to work now to be prepared for the future.”
Low levels also have prompted concerns about boating safety.
“The advice I would give (to boaters) is if you’re unfamiliar with the lake, don’t go faster than you’re willing to hit something,” said Sgt. Mike Burgamy, Lake Lanier supervisor with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, in a November 2011 interview.
Linda Bostick of Dawsonville said the when she into her lake house about 16 years ago, “the lake water level was really high, even up into the edge of the woods.
“Since then, I have seen fluctuations, and it has been hard to deal with them. I live on a cove and the smallest drop in level has an extreme impact on my dock. The past few years have been the hardest.”
She agrees with Burgamy’s safety concerns, saying “we all know there are hidden dangers beneath the water.”
But Bostick also is worried about property value.
“I pay property tax based on having a lake house in spite of the fact that, right now, my house isn’t on the water,” she said. “Fortunately, I am not trying to sell my house at this time, but those who are will have a hard time with the lake down. Who wants to buy a lake house if you can’t enjoy the water?”
Mark Rottner of Forsyth County agreed.
“Our home has lost immense value and we are all terribly disappointed,” he said. “It seems that more water continually is let out than is coming in from the rivers that feed the lake.”
Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, also has concerns about current levels.
“Unless we get some sort of (weather) front to fill it back up, we certainly don’t want to enter the summer at a low (point),” she said.
The corps did announce last week that it agreed to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ request to reduce releases from Lake Sidney Lanier at Buford Dam to 650 cubic feet per second from 750 cfs in an effort to conserve as much storage as possible in Lake Lanier.
“Conditions in the middle and lower basin reservoirs over the past several weeks have improved slightly,” the corps states.
David Lyle sure hopes so.
“Sure it is a hassle and it looks bad, but I love my lake and will not abandon it,” he said. “For now, have faith, pray for rain and look forward to higher levels this spring everyone.”