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Lake Lanier is up, but status quo or full pool still uncertain
David Hummel of John’s Creek refuels his boat at Aqualand Marina with passengers Cherokee and Patches in preparation for a weekend on Lake Lanier.


Hear David Stooksbury, state climatologist, talk about typical summer weather patterns and what they could mean for Lake Lanier.

What a difference a year — and about 8 feet of water — can make.

Conditions are looking more like the holiday in 2007, just before rain-starved Lake Lanier began its descent, exposing shoreline and leaving docks and boats on dry land.

Lake Lanier now is at 1,065.53 feet above sea level, less than 6 feet below full pool of 1,071 feet, compared to 1,057.75 feet last Memorial Day. All of Lanier’s parks and boat ramps are open and those who work the lake are geared up for a busy holiday.

But whether Lake Lanier can maintain its elevation or rise to full pool anytime soon is anybody’s guess.

A continuing pattern of wetter-than-normal weather over the summer will help but won’t guarantee decent levels, largely because hotter weather means more evaporation, state climatologist David Stooksbury said.

Also, at this time of the year, "plants are really growing and using a large amount of water," he said.

"This year, we’ve had some good rain and it’s been cool, so the soils for late May are wet."

As the summer heats up, "the moisture loss due to evaporation and plant use is typically greater than the rainfall," Stooksbury said. "If we have a normal summer, the soils will start to dry out, but ... this is not a precursor to a drought. This is normal."

Hurricane season, which runs June 1 to Nov. 30, often can correct droughts, but the big storms mostly dodged North Georgia the past couple of years.

The lake dropped to its lowest level ever, 1,050.79 feet, on Dec. 26, 2007 — down 17 feet in seven months.

Rain has returned with a slight vengeance this year. As of Saturday, the area had received 25 inches, an inch more than the normal 24.

The drought is almost gone, with part or all of 10 Northeast Georgia counties, including the northern end of Hall, considered "abnormally dry," according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is updated every Thursday.

One year ago, by comparison, the state ranged from abnormally dry to extreme drought. Only 35 percent of Georgia had normal rainfall amounts.

Ironically, with gas prices lower and the economy starting to improve, the forecast caused some concern that rain might be the one thing to put a damper on this Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start to the summer season.

Otherwise, parks are ready for visitors and campgrounds are full, said Mark Williams, chief park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Buford.

"The lake’s not full, so the beaches aren’t up to their maximum water depth," he said.

The last time Lake Lanier was at full pool or above was Sept. 6, 2005.

So with a hurricane or two pushing inward from the coast, could it reach that point later this year?

In late summer and fall, "we are quite often depending on a fair amount of our rainfall coming from tropical systems ... that can really make the difference between a dry summer and a wet summer," Stooksbury said.

"So, we’re on the cusp between abnormally wet or dry, depending on the tropics. Unfortunately, we don’t have a very good ability to do that type of forecasting."

Sean Ryan, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, said the seasonal outlook calls for the drought to improve.

"I would anticipate that through the summer (Lanier is) going to slowly approach full pool," he said. "I can’t say it’s going to reach it this year or not. There’s still a long way to go."

Stooksbury said, "Rainfall and inflow are only part of the determination of what will happen to (Lanier). How (the lake) is managed is also critical."

The corps decided in April to resume regular water discharges — 750 cubic feet per second, up from 650 — from Buford Dam into the Chattahoochee River, a move that upset some lake advocates and residents.

Lisa Coghlan, deputy public affairs officer with the corps, has said the new discharges mean "less than 2 inches a month of water surface."

Val Perry, executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association, has said he would like the corps to consider raising the lake’s full pool to 1,073 feet above sea level, from 1,071 feet, as part of its efforts to update the water manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.

Pete Taylor, chief of staff for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mobile District, took some of his hope away when he spoke at the association’s annual membership meeting May 5, saying higher elevations wouldn’t play a factor in the update.

"We’re not going to quit on that. He needs pressure from our (U.S. senators and representatives)," Perry said last week.

"... How many people have been saying for several years that we’ve got to have more dams, more reservoirs? (A higher Lanier) would be the cheapest 25 to 30 billion gallon reservoir in the history of America," he added.

"Right now, when it’s 1,065 (feet), nobody’s thinking about it, but everybody would win — Florida and Alabama would win, certainly recreation and the economy up here would win."

In the meantime, the mood around the lake is more upbeat, given the rising water level.

"I’m starting to see more boats out here than I’ve ever seen," Perry said. "I’ve cleaned my boat up and I’m ready to go."