First, the good news about Lake Lanier's water level: It's not dropping.
Though the lake is 20 feet below its normal full pool of 1,071 feet above sea level, it held steady at about 1,051 feet throughout January. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects that it will remain at 1,051 at least through the end of February, if current weather patterns persist.
Now for the bad news: We need the lake level to start moving up, and soon.
"Our window is shrinking rapidly," said Todd Rasmussen, professor of hydrology at the University of Georgia. "The rain has to come before the growing season starts in April."
Lisa Coghlan, spokeswoman for the corps' district office in Mobile, Ala., concurs. "Rainfall, or lack thereof, over the next two months, particularly in March, could determine the lake level for the rest of the year," she said.
Coghlan said Lanier has been holding its own because the corps is releasing "only the absolute minimum" of about 600 cubic feet per second from Buford Dam.
"The reservoirs down below Lanier (along the Chattahoochee River system) are full, due to recent rain," she said. "That has really assisted us in keeping water in Lake Lanier."
But that situation can continue only for a couple more months. When warmer weather arrives, more water will have to be released to generate hydropower for metro Atlanta. And even if the corps releases nothing from the dam at all, the lake will lose increasing amounts of water to evaporation as temperatures rise.
In other words, it needs to rain like crazy in February and March. But what are the odds of that happening?
Not good, if January is any indicator. Though it may have seemed as if North Georgia was getting another bout of rain, sleet or snow every few days, the actual amount of precipitation was disappointing.
"We should be getting at least 5 inches in January, but we're over 2 inches behind for the month," said Stephen Konarik, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City.
He said there were plenty of "rain events," but they didn't produce much.
"When it does rain, it's a little less precipitation than we would normally get," he said. "Storms have been more powerful over the northern half of the U.S. than they have here."
Konarik said from Jan. 1, 2007, through Jan. 31, 2008, Gainesville received 34.57 inches of rain. Normally during that period, the city should get about 55 inches.
Rasmussen said it will take at least 20 inches of rain to recharge the groundwater, which is necessary in order to fill the lake.
"Normal rainfall averages about 5 inches a month. So we would need at least double the normal amount over the next two months," he said.
The recent rains have helped fill municipal reservoirs, such as the ones that serve Athens and Cleveland. But those manmade lakes are easy to fill because their volume is so much smaller than Lanier's.
"The problem with Lanier is that it's the biggest lake in Georgia but has the smallest catchment basin," Coghlan said.
Rasmussen said stream flows into the lake haven't increased much, because the groundwater is still depleted.
"The rain has gotten maybe 1 or 2 feet into the soil. But below that depth, it's still powder-dry," he said.
Because meteorology is still an inexact science, Coghlan said the corps only makes its projections five weeks in advance. She said officials are not yet discussing a contingency plan for what they'll do if Lanier is still at or below 1,051 feet when the recreation season starts.
"As of now, the campgrounds will still open (some as early as March)," she said. "As far as swimming this year, I don't what we'll do. We may have to close some parks entirely if there's a public safety issue."
Rasmussen said though the recreation season may be a bust, there should still be enough water for drinking.
"Even at half-full, there's still a tremendous amount of storage in the lake," he said. "You could get all the way through summer (without much rain) and still have some water left."
Rasmussen added that the hurricane season officially begins in June, too far away for forecasters to make an accurate prediction. But Rasmussen said there's always the chance that Georgia could take a direct hit from a massive storm.
"It's still possible that a hurricane could fill up the lake fairly quickly," he said.