For the past couple of weeks, local government officials and residents have been watching Lake Lanier’s water level drop and asking themselves, "What if?"
What if the drought persists through the winter and into spring? Both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division have said it’s possible for Lanier to plunge to the bottom of its conservation pool, or 1,035 feet above sea level. At that point, Lanier’s water level is lower than pipes used to withdraw water from the lake.
Normal full pool is 1,071 feet. Right now, Lanier is at about 1,056 feet and is dropping about one foot per week.
If the lake were 36 feet below normal, what would happen to the communities surrounding Lanier?
Gainesville Public Utilities director Kelly Randall said the city shouldn’t have to worry about running out of water since there’s an intake pipe located near the original Chattahoochee River channel that existed before Lanier was built in the 1950s.
But that water supply would be limited.
"We know we can withdraw water if the lake gets to the bottom of the conservation pool," Randall said. "We just don’t know how much. I’ve got our engineers working on that right now."
While the city tries to figure out how much water would be available, high-volume users of water are being asked to voluntarily come up with ways to conserve.
And if the water shortage becomes critical, the city will have to decide who gets served first.
"We are identified as a priority," said Kevin Matson, safety and emergency preparedness coordinator for Northeast Georgia Medical Center. "We have a memorandum of understanding with Gainesville on that. But the first step is to mitigate the shortage. Conservation is not the only solution, but it certainly helps."
Matson said the hospital introduced some conservation measures before the current crisis came to light. For example, for cleaning floors, the hospital has switched to disposable microfiber mops that require very little water.
Employees are also being asked to use alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel when they enter and leave patient rooms.
"(Though) when hands are visibly soiled, they obviously need soap and water," Matson said.
But now officials are looking at what else they can do.
"We’re turning off machines that use water, such as dialysis machines, instead of letting them run all night," Matson said. "But we’re keeping one available at all times for emergencies."
The hospital has also been asked to submit a contingency plan to the Georgia Division of Public Health. Matson said the plan would involve measures such as bringing in tanks of nonpotable water to flush toilets.
The medical center has already had a sort of dress rehearsal for what a water shortage might be like.
"Earlier this year, a water main on Jesse Jewell (Parkway) broke. We were without water for eight hours," Matson said. "We broke into our stash of bottled water, and we immediately called our supplier for more."
But he said stockpiling bottled water is not a solution during a long-term drought, because hospitals throughout Georgia would be doing the same thing, and bottled-water distributors would not have enough supply to meet the need.
While Northeast Georgia Medical Center is among the top 25 water users in Gainesville, it is far outranked by local poultry plants, each of which uses more than 1 million gallons per day.
Poultry is Gainesville’s biggest industry, and it would take the biggest hit if water rationing becomes necessary.
In poultry processing, water is used for a number of functions, including conditioning and cleaning the chickens, adding and removing heat from the product in process, cleaning plant surfaces and removing waste materials.
Craig Wyvill, chief of the food processing technology division of the Georgia Tech Research Institute, said the typical poultry processing operation uses about five gallons of fresh water per bird.
Some of the water used in processing is filtered, disinfected and reused in the plant. Otherwise, Wyvill said, that processing would require about 10 gallons of water for each bird.
"In the mid-1990s, the industry had brought its water usage way down," Wyvill said. "Then the food safety inspection service began emphasizing lower microbial counts on birds, and that necessitated more rinse stations, which were the approved method for washing bacteria off of birds. We had a net increase of water use as a result."
He said the USDA began allowing reuse of water in 1999.
"Most plants now employ some reuse or recycling of water," Wyvill said.
But since only fresh water can come into direct contact with a food product, the poultry plants cannot cut back on water use much more than they already have. If the water supply becomes limited, plant shutdowns are a possibility.
Even if Gainesville is still able to withdraw an adequate amount of drinking water, any industry that depends directly on Lanier will suffer as the lake level goes down. Boating, tourism and real estate sales could be crippled.
"Obviously, the recreation industry would be history," said Wilton Rooks, who lives on the lake near Cumming.
He said he’s worried about the cumulative effects on the economy.
"Industries can’t go into hibernation and come back later. If they can’t make money here, they’ll go somewhere else. Look at New Orleans (after Hurricane Katrina)."
Rooks said his family has been boating and sailing on Lanier for decades, but he didn’t purchase a permanent home on the lake until 2005.
"I’m not sure I’d buy a home the way things are now," he said, referring to the fact that many homeowners’ boat docks are now sitting on dry land.
"I think some people will get to the point where they don’t want to live on the lake anymore. But what are their options? It will be hard to sell a home under these conditions."
Jackie Joseph, president of the Lake Lanier Association, said she knows several residents whose boats have been stranded on dry land, and they’ve been unable to haul them out of the lake because most of the boat ramps are now closed.
But as boating becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous, people will still be able to visit the lake. Mark Williams, chief park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Buford Dam, said there are no plans to close corps-operated parks, no matter how low the lake gets.
"Unless there’s some unforeseen safety hazard we don’t know about, the parks will stay open even if all the boat ramps are closed," he said. "We expect the campgrounds to reopen in the spring as usual."
Many residents have voiced concerns that the shrinking quantity of water in Lanier will affect its quality.
"I worry that there will not be enough water in the lake to dilute the wastewater discharges (from treatment plants around the lake)," said Rooks. "Arithmetically, you’ve got less and less water, yet the same volume of effluent. At some level, it does become significant, and I don’t think anyone knows what that level is."
Randall insists that pollution will not be an issue, regardless of Lanier’s level.
"Gainesville and Gwinnett are required (by the EPD) to have stringent standards for our effluent," he said.
The wastewater is treated to such a high degree, Randall said, that dilution is not necessary to maintain water quality in Lanier.
Randall added that the city has no plans to use its Cedar Creek reservoir in East Hall as a source of drinking water. The reservoir has no treatment plant, so a pumping station and pipeline would have to be built to transport the water to a treatment plant in Gainesville.
"It’s more likely that we would release water from the reservoir to help communities downstream," Randall said.
The Cedar Creek reservoir is in the Oconee River basin, the same watershed that supplies water to the city of Athens and the almost-dry Bear Creek reservoir.
Joseph said the drought is foremost in everyone’s mind these days.
"There are some people who are trying to look at the bright side and say, well, (the lake) has filled up before, it can do it again," she said. "But most are very concerned. Until you get into a dire situation, people don’t pay attention. That’s just human nature. We don’t think long-term. Our leaders didn’t seem to learn much from the last drought (in 1999-2002)."
But things are different this time, with Gov. Sonny Perdue declaring North Georgia a disaster area and asking President Bush for federal assistance.
William Wright, director of emergency management for Hall, said he plans to meet with city and county officials later this week about a contingency plan if there’s a water shortage.
"We need to get an idea of where we are before we can start planning," he said. "This is a totally different type of disaster than any of us has dealt with before."
Times reporter Harris Blackwood contributed to this story.