Our lake in crisis
Four years after a record-setting drought, Lake Lanier is dropping again. How much progress have we made on securing drinking water for the region and just how low will it go this time around?
As the lake level drops, how will it affect businesses that depend on its tourism boost? Plus, Lake Lanier Islands has made major improvements; if levels aren't back up in time for swim season, what would it mean for this resort and waterpark?
The lake's dropping level leaves some municipalities' intake pipes high and dry. How has our water consumption changed since the last drought and what plans are in place to secure our drinking water?
Georgia has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the amount of water it releases from Lake Lanier.
Seeking a reprieve for the lake that supplies much of metro Atlanta with its water, Allen Barnes, the director of the state's Environmental Protection Division, wants the corps to reduce flows below Buford Dam to 650 cubic feet per second through March 2012, according to a letter from Barnes to the corps that The Times has obtained.
The amount is 100 cubic feet below the target flow meant to dilute the treated wastewater coming from Atlanta and ensure the viability of wildlife in the Chattahoochee River near Peachtree Creek.
A cubic foot is equal to about 7.5 gallons.
In a Nov. 7 letter to corps Col. Steven Roemhildt, Barnes cites drought conditions throughout the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, which includes Lanier, as a reason for the request.
He wrote that forecasts of below-normal rainfall in the winter and spring could have continued effects on lake levels, which are already sinking to lows that do not support navigation.
Lake Lanier's level near Buford was recorded at 1,058.21 feet above sea level at 11:15 a.m. Thursday. The level is nearly 13 feet below the reservoir's full pool level of 1,071 feet.
In the letter, Barnes argues that the reduction in flows would not negatively impact the Chattahoochee River's ability to dilute wastewater coming from Atlanta.
The target flow of 750 cubic feet is based on the amount of treated wastewater the city released into the river in 2007.
The EPD estimates that Atlanta is releasing as much as 20 percent less wastewater into the river than it was four years ago, according to the letter.
"...Reduction of the flow target to 650 cfs will not result in a water quality violation," Barnes writes.
Barnes also asserts that the reduction in flows would not adversely affect other reservoirs in the ACF basin.
The corps is evaluating the request's effect on the entire ACF basin and is expected to respond to the request soon, according to Pat Robbins, a spokesman for the corps' Mobile district office.
The corps approved an identical request from the state in 2008 when North Georgia was in the grips of drought.
But with the recent drought mostly centered in South Georgia, the corps has a different equation to consider than it did three years ago, Robbins said.
The Flint River, which meets the Chattahoochee at the corners of Georgia, Florida and Alabama to form the Apalachicola River, now suffers most.
Water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers support the sensitive ecological systems in Florida's panhandle and affect the balance of fresh and salt water upon which Apalachicola Bay's oyster industry relies.
The flow target corps officials seek below Jim Woodruff Dam, where the Apalachicola River begins, is 5,000 cubic feet.
Today, that flow requirement relies heavily on water that comes from Lake Lanier.
"You're getting extremely, extremely low flows out of the Flint River, so it's not contributing hardly anything to the flow system right now," Robbins said. "...If there's extremely low flows on the Flint and you still have the 5,000 cfs requirement at Jim Woodruff (dam) that water has to come from the Chattahoochee."