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Lake Lanier's falling water level affects rowers, paddlers
Clubs worried about droughts impact on Olympic Park training, events
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Water nears the Lake Lanier Rowing Club boathouse on Dec. 29, 2015. Over the next days, water levels reached the boathouse as the lake passed its full pool level. It’s now down 11 feet due to the drought. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Last winter, the boathouse at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park off Clarks Bridge Road had standing water and the bottom floor of the Olympic Timing Tower was inches away from being flooded.

This year, it’s an opposite problem, as much of Hall County is in exceptional drought, the highest or worst level.

Approaching winter, officials are concerned about dropping water levels, especially with teams training on Lanier as early as December.

“With water levels trending downward, we are having to prepare for the effects,” said Morgan House, who manages the rowing and canoe-kayak venue.

The draining water means having to “drop the dock ramps on the boathouse side from the sea wall and lay them flat on the ground,” he said.

That’s done to reduce “the danger of walking down such a steep ramp, as well as protecting the ramps from possible damage.”

House added: “We do our best to educate the park users of the dangers surrounding our area when the water is low, such as (emergence of) trees, rocks and of course the grandstand from the old racetrack near Laurel Park.”

In December 2007, when the lake dropped to its historic low of 1,050.79 feet, old cars and boats emerged, as well as the top of concrete bleachers from the old Gainesville Speedway.

“Also, directly in front of the boathouse, there is an island that forms when the lake (levels fall),” House said. “It can be very dangerous if you do not know it is there.”

Installing the venue’s race course “also becomes more difficult because if the water gets too low, we must adjust (it) to the east to make sure that it fits within the channel. Although this sounds like a simple task, I can assure you, it is not.”

With college teams arriving, “educating them on the potential hazards — such as the island that forms in front of the boathouse and the other shallow water (areas) — is a top priority,” House said.

Ann Marie Hynes, vice president of the Lake Lanier Rowing Club, said hundreds of students from colleges and high schools are expected to start arriving in January for training.

“The month of March is just a zoo,” she said. “We’ve got a capacity (number) of schools every week of that month. ... You can’t find a hotel room here in March.”

Most students are from the North, where lakes are frozen and training is impossible.

“When the lake is this low, it’s more dangerous for them because of all the obstacles,” Hynes said. “But we’ve (accommodated them) before. We’ll do it again.”

House is optimistic, despite the low water levels.

“I feel that we are prepared to host our major events in 2017 without too much interruption,” he said. “I will, however, be praying for rain.”

Last week, Lake Lanier hit 1,061 feet above sea level, which is 10 feet below full pool. The winter full pool of 1,070 feet takes effect Dec. 1.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which has shuttered boat ramps around Lanier, projects the level to reach 1,059.7 feet by Dec. 15.

Worse yet, the long-range forecast isn’t looking too good, though some rain is expected this week.

The area is looking at a “greater probability of above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation,” state climatologist Bill Murphey has said. “(That’s) not good for the current drought conditions.” 

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