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How places around Lake Lanier are coping after the wettest year since 2013
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Trash is scattered throughout Lake Lanier Olympic Park on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

Last year was the wettest year Gainesville has seen since 2013.

In 2018 the city received a total of 69.86 inches of rain, just over 13 inches more than it did in 2017, according to the National Weather Service Forecast Office. Because of that rain, Hall County and surrounding areas experienced flooding a few times.

The first came in the spring at the end of May when rains flooded Helen and many parks near the lake, which in turn hurt local farmers. It came again at the end of the year — which featured the wettest December since 1983 with 13.64 inches of rain — forcing road closures throughout Hall.

After a year filled with so much rain, marinas in the area and others around Lake Lanier had to deal with the ramifications.

“It’s easier for us to deal with low lake levels than it is high lake levels,” said Brent Pearson, operations manager with TEI Industries which owns Port Royale Marina in Gainesville. “Flooding is more of a challenge … a foot or two doesn't really matter. I’d much rather be five feet low than five feet high. Five feet high is a major problem.”

Although the lake never quite got that high,it did get high enough to flood parts of Port Royale. Pearson said the marina wasn’t affected much by all the rain, but parking lots on the property were.

“When the water comes up to where it’s flooding the land of your marina, there’s really not much you can do. You can’t add dirt to make the parking lot higher, or at least not very easily,” Pearson said, laughing.

The year ended with the lake at 1,073.8 feet above sea level according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, almost four feet above winter full pool of 1,070. Summer full pool is 1,071 feet above sea level.

“When the lake goes above that level, it impacts recreation facilities, private docks and marinas, as they are all designed for maximum operation at the summer pool level,” Army Corps spokesman E. Patrick Robbins told The Times in June.

The lake was at its lowest point, 1,065.91 feet above sea level, at the beginning of January 2018, but quickly rose with the wettest February since 1998 and reached its highest point of the year, 1,074.69 feet above sea level, on June 2.

As the water rose at different times throughout the year, so did the amount of trash and debris at Lake Lanier Olympic Park. In the spring, it had to cancel a concert because of flooding at the venue, and this winter it had to postpone its annual Polar Bear Plunge due to the unsafe conditions. Not only is it unsafe for visitors, the athletes who train on the water every day aren’t able to do so when flooding happens.

“The athletes aren’t really able to go out and paddle because of all the debris,” said Robyn Lynch, Lake Lanier Olympic Venue manager. “Especially with large trees and limbs that are coming down because it’s dangerous for them.”

Any time the lake rises above full pool, trash and debris from the banks and loose items on docks flow into the lake, which is causing problems at the venue in the new year, and it all has to be cleaned up with the help of volunteers.

“We’ll have to take shovels and rakes and pressure washers, because it’s mostly just trash,” Lynch said. “The city has brought out a dump truck for us that we’ll fill with things that have washed on the shore.”

The rain didn’t just bring trash and debris into the lake, it also sometimes brought bacteria and toxins. That’s something Chattahoochee Riverkeeper headwaters director Dale Caldwell said comes with any rain event, though, as runoff occurs. He said 2018 was “a great thing from a water supply position. However, all of this rain certainly can create water quality issues.”

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper tests for chlorophyll-a to see how much algae is in the water. Caldwell said they’re looking for algal blooms because “that can result in a number of problems we don’t want to see happening in Lake Lanier.”

Looking back at the year, he said he wasn’t surprised that the levels were slightly higher than in previous years, due to the rain and runoff.

“There’s a lot of potential for pollutants entering in our waterways with this much rain,” Caldwell said. “That’s why we say stay out of the waterways during and right after rain events. That’s when all the pollution has been flushed in and it’s good to let it have time to flow downstream and dilute.”

The rain, although it sometimes caused problems for places around the lake, didn’t stop people from visiting and enjoying time on the water. Pearson said he doesn’t think the rain was a “detriment” at all.

“As far as boating goes, even though lower water is easier for marinas to handle than flooding, boaters obviously prefer the lake to be full because it gives them a lot more lake,” Pearson said. “High water, I’ve never really seen that discourage anybody from coming out.”

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