As Lake Lanier sunk past its previous record low level Monday night, a panel of experts in Lumpkin County deferred many questions about the future to God.
At 3 p.m. today, Lake Lanier’s level was at 1,052.53 feet above sea level, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site. That puts the lake 0.13 feet below the previous low of 1,052.66, recorded during a drought in December 1981. The lake first beat its previous low at 9 p.m. Monday, according to the Web site.
Forecasters aren’t predicting drought-busting weather anytime soon, and the lake level is expected to continue dropping. But Lanier’s level may fluctuate slightly for the next few days.
First, last Wednesday night’s rain has allowed the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers to keep draining slightly more water into the lake.
Second, rain is forecast over parts of the next five days, starting Wednesday night. Though it won’t be enough to fill the lake to its full-pool level of 1,071 feet above sea level, it could, at least, slow or temporarily halt the lake’s decline.
Monday’s panel, made up of water experts, politicians and environmental activists, sought divine intervention in grappling with the drought, which threatens water supplies across the Southeast.
Panelists deferred many questions to "the good Lord" and "the fellow upstairs" in an hour and a half question-and-answer session sponsored by the Lumpkin Democratic and Republican parties, the Sierra Club, the Lumpkin Coalition and Lumpkin County Homeowners Association.
Becky Champion, assistant branch chief of the Coosa-Tallapoosa-Tennessee river basins for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, responding to the first question of the evening, said the EPD predicts the drought will last until at least next winter, but the division is unsure how long it will take the area to recover.
"It just depends on the fellow upstairs and what (rain) we get," Champion said.
Gary McCullough, mayor of Dahlonega, told attendees that the city had $22 million in long-term plans to build new water treatment plants to treat up to 10 million gallons per day, but did not know where the city would get the water.
"We’re in good shape if the good Lord will let the rain come and fill everything back up," McCullough said.
Rep. Amos Amerson referred Lanier residents who complained about the rapidly lowering lake to God.
"There are a lot of complaints, and we just tell them to join the governor on the steps of the Capitol," Amerson said.
Gov. Sonny Perdue held a prayer for rain last week at the Capitol.
Other questions, though not deferred to God, provided no definitive answers.
Forum moderator Ron Jones asked the panel if any studies had been done about sources of groundwater in North Georgia.
"It’s very tough geologically to figure these things out," Champion answered. "Up here we don’t have real good data on what the connection is between groundwater and surface water."
However, that is something the EPD plans to look at, Champion said.
Nor did the panel say if the state had a plan to aid businesses hurt by the drought.
Tommy Irvin, Georgia’s agriculture commissioner, told attendees that Georgia has more surplus money in its treasury right now than ever before, but he was not sure what Perdue’s plan was to help suffering businesses.
"We have discussed this with Gov. Perdue ... there is money available, but it’s his will and pleasure to make this money available to soften the blow for a lot of our people," Irvin said.
However, officials had ideas on how to get by and conserve the current water supply.
Champion said there was a statewide water effort called WaterSmart to educate all Georgia residents, private well owners included, about conserving water.
"The more we can educate people, the better off we are," Champion said. "Somehow, we’ve got to try to instill this in people’s hearts that this is what we need to do."
Amerson said people need to educate themselves on the draft of the state’s water plan so they can have input.
Sally Bethea, executive director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said the state should explore expanding Lake Lanier and using the 19 existing National Resource Conservation Service reservoirs before looking to build a new reservoir.
"I think the state should really come in with some funding to help local governments with distribution from those areas," Bethea said.
Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, agreed. Cook said new reservoirs would cost tax dollars as well as private property and habitat for biologically diverse river basins.
"Everybody’s screaming that we need reservoirs ... but we need to approach that very carefully," Cook said. "Reservoirs are the most expensive means of extending our water supply."
"The good Lord only made so much water ... just recycle it," Irvin said.
The panel received a list of the questions in advance.