The Lake Lanier Association has issued a "call to action" to its members, urging them to complain to Georgia’s politicians about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ alleged mismanagement of the lake’s water levels.
The lake advocacy group, in a letter sent to Lanier stakeholders, claims the corps is currently releasing "two to 10 times as much water as flows into Lanier," whereas in previous droughts "releases were kept to a minimum."
Lake residents are being asked to contact Georgia’s U.S. senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, as well as Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal of Gainesville.
"The purpose of this call to action is to get people to say basically, ‘Hey, we’ve got a crisis here,’" said Jackie Joseph, president of the lake association. "And we think this is going to take congressional intervention. This is a federal reservoir, and the corps isn’t supposed to be making arbitrary decisions."
Joseph acknowledges that Georgia’s record drought is the main reason the lake’s level is more than 12 feet below full pool and continues to drop precipitously.
"But the minimum flows (released from Buford Dam) are based in part on endangered species requirements downstream," she said. "The essence of the problem is, how much water is really needed for that purpose? We don’t think the science is very well documented. I don’t think any solid studies have been done."
Lanier is part of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system that extends into Florida and Alabama. Lisa Coghlan, spokeswoman for the corps’ district office in Mobile, which manages Lanier, said the agency is required to maintain a flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the Apalachicola on Florida’s Gulf Coast, partly to support several species of mussels and sturgeon.
"We also need to protect water quality downstream, and to provide water for a commercial business, the Scholz power plant," she said.
The Herbert Scholz Generating Plant is a coal-fired facility owned by Gulf Power, part of Southern Company. It’s located below Woodruff Dam on the Apalachicola River, 25 miles east of Marianna, Fla.
Coghlan said she did not know why this particular power plant receives special consideration. "It’s been that way for years and years," she said.
In September 2006, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released an assessment of the corps’ interim operations plan for water releases from Woodruff Dam into the Apalachicola River. The wildlife agency said that "a minimum flow below the dam of 5,000 cfs during all times of the year" is needed "for system operational reasons including protection of a water intake at (Scholz) power plant; it is also important to the conservation of imperiled species."
Lynn Erickson, spokeswoman for Gulf Power, said the company has filed letters with the corps stating that 5,000 cfs is the minimum flow at which the plant can operate.
"It’s a pretty small plant, but it’s in the most southeastern corner of Southern Company’s grid," she said. "It’s needed for grid stability."
But while the Endangered Species Act may require the corps to maintain a minimum flow for certain types of plants or animals, there is no federal mandate regarding the needs of utility companies.
Coghlan emphasized that Lanier is not the sole source of water for the Apalachicola; there are many tributaries and several dams that also feed into that river.
"We manage the ACF basin as a system," she said. "We’re doing what we’ve always done. It’s just more noticeable during a drought."
As for the lake association’s complaint that the corps is releasing more from Lanier than the lake is receiving, Coghlan said the reason for that is obvious.
"In current drought conditions, there is no water coming into the lake," she said.
Joseph wants to know what happened with the comprehensive management plan that the corps was supposed to develop for Lanier and the rest of the ACF basin.
"Back in August 2006, when there was congressional hearing about the lake (held at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville), Senators Isakson and Chambliss both said the corps needed to make a commitment to rewriting its management plan for Lanier," she said. "But since then, nothing has been done."
Coghlan said the corps is still working on a comprehensive water management plan. "The drought will delay its completion because we’ll have to incorporate that into our computer modeling," she said.
In mid-September, talks broke down between Alabama and Georgia over a water-sharing agreement for the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin. Lake Lanier is in the ACF basin, not the ACT. But the fate of both systems has been tied up in courts since the early 1990s, and resolving the issue with one basin is contingent on reaching an agreement for the other.
On Sept. 28, Isakson and Chambliss sent a letter to Peter Geren, Secretary of the Army, demanding that the corps immediately begin updating its management plans for the two basins. The senators then met with corps officials on Oct. 4.
"The corps has taken the position that they won’t update the water management plans as long as there’s hope that the three states will reach an agreement," Isakson told The Times on Tuesday.
"But after the tri-state talks broke down, we approached the corps and said it’s absolutely essential that we move forward with the water control plans. It will take 18 to 24 months to rewrite the manuals, so every day the corps delays means it will be that much longer before it’s implemented."
Isakson said the corps is basing its decisions on documents written 20 years ago. "We need real-time data and real-time information," he said.
He added that Congress, which votes on how much money gets appropriated for the Army, ultimately has oversight of the corps.
Isakson also noted that it was Congress that passed the Endangered Species Act. He said Georgia Environmental Protection Division director Carol Couch is seeking a waiver of the federal species law in order to reduce the flow in Apalachicola, allowing Georgia to retain more water in its lakes.
"I’m in favor of animals as much as anybody," Isakson said. "But in an extreme drought like this, we have to consider human needs as well."
On Tuesday, Rep. Deal also wrote to Secretary Geren, asking why the Endangered Species Act’s "administrative relief clause" for human livelihood is not being used in this situation.
Joseph said the lake association’s letter-writing campaign is not about protecting Lanier’s lucrative boating or real estate industries.
"I don’t believe we should keep water in the lake just for recreational purposes," she said. "But Georgia has a real water supply problem now. And as the population grows, discharges (of treated wastewater) to the lake will be increasing. We need sufficient water to dilute that effluent."
Chris Riley, spokesman for Deal, said the lake association’s "call to action" seems to be having an effect.
"We are receiving quite a few phone calls and letters from our constituents on this issue," he said.