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Our Lake in Crisis: Water supplies are dwindling
Lanier levels fall 1.5 feet per week
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GAINESVILLE -- In as little as three months, Gainesville might miss the water because the well will really run dry if there is no rain.

“That’s a worst-case scenario is really what that is,” said Horace Gee, environmental services administrator for Gainesville.

But Gee said the data was near accurate because the tributaries that contribute to Lake Lanier are so low and some of them are even dry.

“That is a pretty good calculation,” he said.

Gee said Lake Lanier’s level is dropping about a foot-and-a-half every week, and it will drop faster if there is no rain. Because the lake is cylindrical, its footprint gets smaller as the water level drops, Gee said.

What that means is that the more the lake level drops, the faster it disappears.

When Lanier reaches 1,035 feet above sea level, no water can be released from Buford Dam and no water will flow down the Chattahoochee River. It’s currently at 1,057.71 feet, some 13 feet below full pool.

To try and keep Lake Lanier from reaching that dangerous level anytime soon, state and local officials are doing what they can to hold on to the water in Lanier for as long as they can.

Dr. Carol Couch, head of the state’s Environmental Protection Division, is working on a plan that will cut out some of the exemptions for the Level Four Drought status. The plan will end exemptions for nonessential businesses like landscape companies, nurseries and car washes with no water recycling systems, Gee said. Couch’s report will include the economic impact, including the number of jobs that will be lost, of nixing the business exemptions.

The new policy also may end exemptions for those pulling water directly from the lake or from a well system. Gee said well-water users have been a source of frustration since the Level Four Drought went into effect because some of them have still been watering their lawns on a regular basis.

He said the city has been inundated with calls of people reporting their neighbors who are watering their lawns, but when a city official arrives on the scene, they find out the person is pulling water from the lake or from a well. “There’s nothing right now that we can do to those people for that,” Gee said.
But when these people use water in such a discretionary fashion, they are making the water situation worse for the area, Gee said.

“No matter where (the water) is coming from,” Gee said. “Whether they’re getting it out of the ground or if they’re getting it directly from the lake ... it’s still part of the resource that is needed to sustain aquatic life, to sustain habitat, to sustain the water supply for everyone below Buford Dam.”

“But people just sort of ignore it. They know there’s nothing we can do, and they basically just thumb their nose at us.”

Gee said he had compiled a list of 57 people who pulled their water from different sources than the city and were still watering their lawns.

“They have no respect for the community, and for the well-being of the water resources that we have,” Gee said. “No matter if we go out to them and get on our knees and say ‘please help us.’”

He said he had received 75 calls for Free Chapel Worship Center alone, but there is nothing he can do since the church works off a well. Gee said that will no longer be a problem once Couch has the exemptions for well users removed.

Calls to the church’s administrator were not returned Friday.

In any case, Gee said the Level Four restrictions have reduced city water use by an average of 7 million gallons per day. The city is currently operating on an average of 19 million gallons per day, but Gee said he estimates that if residents used only the water they needed, it would go down to 16.

Since the city started its 24-hour watch on watering ban violators, 200 citations have been issued. That number is nearly half of the number of citations issued from May to September, when the area was in a Level Two drought.

But Gee said more needs to be done, and more is currently being done, to conserve water.

Couch sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that manages Lake Lanier, on Friday, asking it to reduce the amount of water it releases from the lake. In the letter, she stated that if the Corps continues releasing water at the same rate, there is a serious risk of Georgia’s reservoirs being drained of all their conservation storage. If that happens, the letter stated, there will be severe water shortages in Georgia, and the animals that depend on the flows of the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers will be harmed.

"The Corps must take action now to avert this catastrophe,” the letter stated.

On the same day, Gov. Sonny Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle sent out press releases in support of Couch’s letter to the Corps.

“The document that the Army Corps of Engineers received today presents a win-win solution for all involved,” Cable said in a statement. “This is a reasonable and workable resolution to our water shortage and I commend the governor as well as our entire state and federal delegation for working together to aggressively address this issue. It is our hope that the Corps will quickly move forward with the plan presented before them.”

However, the Corps announced that it would increase the amount of water it was releasing from Lake Lanier. The Corps said it is necessary to increase the amount released to meet the minimum water flow required to protect an endangered species in Florida and to effectively cool water at Plant Scholtz on the Apalachicola River in the Florida panhandle.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has threatened legal action unless the Corps agrees to the state’s temporary fix by Oct. 17.

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