Our Views: Never forget them
Like a college sports team that always draws the big recruits, it seems Lake Lanier can always be counted on to attract large summer crowds.
Especially when water levels are high and the weather is nice.
"It is certainly the economic driving force for tourism in the area," said Stacey Dickson, Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau president.
Even in 2009, the tail end of a severe two-year drought, the North Georgia reservoir drew nearly 7 million visitors, the population of many U.S. states.
And those visitors typically start pouring in Memorial Day weekend, often regarded as the unofficial start to the lake's summer season.
Campers, boaters, anglers and families bringing picnic lunches typically hit the shores heavily through Labor Day.
The economic downturn did slam business around the lake, but activity seems to be on an uptick these days, Dickson said.
"It's better than it has been the past couple of years, and we're pacing ahead as far as reservations and room rates," she said.
Lake Lanier Islands in South Hall has opened a new attraction, Lanier World, as part of what has been a $75 million overhaul of the resort.
At the heart of Lanier World is the resort's existing water park. Big Beach, featuring a new Italian restaurant and an expanded white-sand beach, surrounds it.
At the far end of Lanier World is the Family Fun Park, which will feature a kids pool and carnival rides as well as "dive-in" movies on summer nights.
Outside the resort, "marinas have made improvements and boats are still selling," Dickson said.
And boat owners are spending a lot of time on Lanier.
"We're trying to reach out to those folks through the marinas to give them information on things to see and do out in town, such as the arts and places to eat and shop," Dickson said.
"We want to direct them into Hall County as opposed to automatically into North Gwinnett."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent the off season sprucing up its parks around the lake, particularly upgrades to campgrounds and day-use parks.
The corps has worked at Van Pugh South, Old Federal, Duckett Mill, Bald Ridge, Bolding Mill and Sawnee campgrounds and West Bank Park and Two Mile Creek Park day-use areas, Chief Ranger Chris Arthur said.
Some of the changes have been fairly involved, such as at Van Pugh South, a former day-use park converted to a campground, at the end of Gaines Ferry Road in Hall County.
The corps has added power and water to 36 sites, removed wooden crossties at 18 tent sites and poured concrete borders around the sites, and upgraded sites to meet federal Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
"We are as ready as we can be," said Nick Baggett, the Corps' natural resource manager at the lake.
Memorial Day crowds vary year to year, he said.
"Weather plays a big factor. As with every other outdoor event, if the weather is good, a lot of people come out," Baggett said. "If it rains, the parks don't have as much use.
"We try to prepare for any condition or any type of visitation that we might have for that day."
And gas prices between $3 and $4 a gallon can work in Lanier's favor, Dickson said.
"It's preventing people from the Atlanta market from driving to the Gulf Coast or the Georgia coast (on vacation)," she said. "They can just drive to Lake Lanier and have the beach experience, be close to home and do it on a tank (of gas).
"If all we did, all year, was just attract people from the Atlanta market, (the lake would) be full."
The weather forecast is for sunny skies and warm temperatures today and Monday.
That's good news for visitors, but the corps is concerned about drier-than-normal conditions over the past few weeks.
"Lake levels were looking very well in the upper basin during the late winter and early spring months," said E. Patrick Robbins, spokesman for the agency's Mobile District.
"Then about mid-April, the rain stopped and inflows began going below normal."
Because of record low inflows in the lower basin throughout the late winter and early spring, "lakes in the upper reach have been used to help meet the required flow in the Apalachicola River to protect endangered species," Robbins said.
For the most part, Lake Lanier's water level has been steadily dropping since it peaked this year at 1,072.13 feet above sea level on April 17.
On Thursday, before predicted rains were to occur later in the day and on Friday, the lake had fallen to 1,069.26 feet, or slightly more than three feet in 5 1/2 weeks.
In Georgia, all but the northern tip of the state is experiencing some level of drier-than-normal conditions. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Hall County is part of a swath across Georgia that has been described as "abnormally dry."
"It looks like this (weather) pattern is going to persist for the next couple of weeks, except for some scattered thunderstorms. But (there won't be) widespread rain," said Pam Knox, assistant state climatologist, last week.
Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said she still feels good about the lake's elevation, even though it's down some.
"And I think things are picking up a bit (economically), as I hear around, particularly on the industrial side and a little on the retail side," she said.
"I'm looking for a good kickoff to summer and a continued (strong) summer."
Dickson is "optimistic that we'll make it through the summer at close to full pool," she said. "We're hopefully not going backward to where we were."
A two-year drought that ended in October 2009 drained Lanier to a historic low of 1,050.79 feet.