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Commentary: The case for raising Lanier's level two feet
0515Wilton Rooks
Wilton Rooks

Georgia's citizens and virtually all government entities from the state house to the local city or county administration understand and accept the need to conserve Georgia's water resources. Georgia's economy - in fact, the entire Southeast economy - depends on a reliable supply of fresh water for water supply, recreation, business, industry and environmental protection.

Georgia has passed a far reaching Water Stewardship Act to impose restrictions and incentives to fix leaks, to use less water and to manage water more efficiently. Cities and counties, especially in the Metro Atlanta area have imposed even more stringent requirements.

But what happens to the millions of gallons of saved water used on a daily basis?

Unless we have more ways to store it, that water flows to the Gulf of Mexico, even during times when there is excess water beyond what is needed for downstream uses. The challenge is to have programs and resources in place to store the water that is conserved so that it can be beneficially used when rainfall does not provide enough water for the users of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin.

The fastest and cheapest way to store that water is in Lake Lanier, already the largest reservoir on the ACF watershed and currently with 14 feet of flood storage capacity. By raising the full pool level of Lake Lanier by only two feet and adjusting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operating procedures for the ACF Basin, more than 26 billion gallons of additional water can be stored during times of surplus to be used during times of drought.

The economics of this approach are overwhelming. It is literally the "low hanging fruit" to achieve increased water storage for Metro Atlanta and for all users in the ACF watershed — including those in Florida and Alabama. Without Lake Lanier's water during the drought of 2007, all downstream users would have had to live with what nature provided, which was about half of the minimum required flow into Apalachicola River. With more water stored in Lake Lanier, everyone wins.

The need to reauthorize Lanier for water supply is a given - even at its current level. So that is not a factor associated with raising the lake by two feet. It is a factor associated with using any of the water from Lanier for water supply purposes. The path toward reauthorization is going to depend on the outcome of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision on Judge Magnuson's ruling and final agreements among the states.

Raising the lake by two feet can occur in a very short time period. During April 2009, the lake rose by 3 feet even though there was only 2.6 inches of rain during that month, considerably below average. There have been other months where it rose very little even with more rain.

The level of Lake Lanier is determined by the rainfall below Buford Dam as much as the amount of rainfall above Buford Dam. The amount and distribution of rainfall in the entire ACF Basin, along with hydropower generation and the Corps of Engineers need to balance the downstream reservoirs, determine how much water is released from Lanier. We have seen Lanier rise extremely fast when there is ample rain fall either above or below Lanier. This recommendation would be to store more water when it is available, not to deprive downstream users of water when it is not in ample supply.

Raising Lanier by 2 feet is not presented as the solution to Atlanta's water future. It is one part of the ultimate solution to Atlanta's water future. While doing so, it forestalls Lanier reaching the extreme low levels that it did in a drought similar to the 2006-2008 drought. Because of the "martini glass" shape of the lake basin, if Lanier had started 2 feet higher at the beginning of that drought, it would have been 3 feet higher when the drought ended.

As documented in the Economic Impact Study produced by the 1071 Coalition, the Lanier recreation economy degrades sharply whenever the Lake drops to 1060 or 1061 elevation. Any option to postpone that occurrence is a positive factor for the North Georgia economy. This idea should not be predicated on how many additional million gallons per day of water can be used for water supply purposes. Instead, it should be viewed as a way to extend the time when is Lanier above the 1060 or 1061 elevation for the economic health of our area.

Securing an agreement with our neighboring states has to be the top priority for the three governors. But that agreement alone does not create more stored water. It will deal with how that water is used. All parties to the agreement will benefit from having more stored water.

The cost and time factors of raising Lanier by 2 feet is miniscule compared to the costs of building new reservoirs. A properly done study will tell us what the costs will be. We all should be interested in a study to determine those costs. Lanier has been above 1073 over 300 times during its history-most recently in November 2009. It has been above 1077 on numerous occasions. Unlike the inevitable unknown surprises that crop up in building a new project, we have the benefit of some experience as to what happens around the lake at those higher levels.

This is not presented as an alternative to new reservoirs or any other viable ideas that will help secure the metro Atlanta's water future. Each idea for addressing Atlanta's water future has to stand on its own merits. This is an idea that has rallied county commissions, recreational users, businesses, environmental groups and many other stakeholders. It is a time that has come. Along with the necessary re-authorization of Lake Lanier for water supply purposes, this change would be a major part of the solution to the Metro Atlanta and the entire SE water supply needs.

The Corps needs to initiate the necessary study to better understand the costs and benefits of this change — now.

Wilton Rooks is vice president of the Lake Lanier Association.

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