The water level at Lake Lanier was slowly rising on this date last year, but at 1,059.22 feet above sea level, North Georgia was still mired in a wrenching drought.
Fast forward to today. Lanier stood at 1,070.30 feet Wednesday evening, with winter rains keeping the elevation above the winter full pool of 1,070 despite ramped-up releases by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“I don’t see any dramatic changes in the weather pattern that would totally shut us off where we go into an extreme dry period,” said Kent Frantz, senior hydrologist with National Weather Service in Peachtree City.
“If anything, the outlook is for us to pretty much remain near normal as we go into the summer months.”
Lake Lanier reached the summer full pool of 1,071 feet on Oct. 14 and stayed above 1,070 feet — and as high as 1,073 feet — since then, thanks to frequent hard rains as result of an El Niño climate pattern.
El Niño, defined as a warming or cooling of at least 0.9 degrees over the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean, “maxed out about a month or two ago,” Frantz said.
“There’s always lag time in what we’re seeing in the eastern Pacific and what’s happening over here,” he added.
“But the outlook is for above-normal rainfall in March and then begin to transition to more normal rainfall for April and May, and that seems to be about on target from we’ve been seeing.”
The National Weather Service forecasts a chance of thunderstorms for today and more rain Friday.
“Because we’ve been so wet this past fall and winter, the soil conditions are very wet,” Frantz said, “so it’s the pre-existing conditions that are giving us the greater chances of flooding.”
The corps is aiming for the lake to drop to 1,070 feet by April 1 and then, by mid-April, begin rising toward the summer full pool.
The goal is to be at 1,071 by May 1.
Avid lake watchers, such as the advocacy group 1071 Coalition, are beaming over the rise of the lake, a big economic draw for the area.
The coalition, which is expected to soon release results of an economic impact study, has released some preliminary numbers, including that the number of May-September visitors to the Lake Lanier area dropped from 5 million in 2007 to 4.2 million in 2008.
Kit Dunlap, president/CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, has said that when you combine low lake levels and high gas prices in the summer of 2008, “it’s no surprise we’re down” by 800,000 visitors.
The promise of a sunny, warm day brought visitors to Clarks Bridge Park in Gainesville on Wednesday morning.
Boaters and anglers were arriving early, shoving their vessels into the shimmering lake.
“I love it,” Winder resident Joe Nolan said of the higher levels.
His boat stocked with fishing gear, he and fishing buddy John Paul Ruth of Conyers first dropped their poles at a spot close to a tree-lined bank topped with houses.
“Lake Lanier is one of the most successful places we’ve been,” Ruth said. “It’s clean ... and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Marcus Isandoro of Gainesville said he was preparing for a fishing tournament this weekend in Laurel Park in North Hall.
“I’m going to go up the river today, probably all the way to the Lula bridge and see if they’re biting up there,” he said.
While the rain has helped lake levels remain up, it has played havoc with recreation plans.
“(The weather has) been awful for so long, so now it’s getting into that season when bass will be spawning ... so I’m looking for the big guys to start coming up,” Isandoro said.