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Our Views: Floodgates opened again
Just as Lake Lanier shows signs of recovery, corps, EPD unwisely increase water releases
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Here we go again.

Spring rains helped fill Lake Lanier to its highest level in more than two years, right at 1,064 feet above sea level. That’s just seven feet below full pool and 12 feet higher than it was when the year started. Bare shoreline is again covered and the lake looks better than it has in recent memory, good news for everyone.

Yet here comes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Environmental Protection Division to parade on our rain.

After reducing the amount of water released downstream into the Chattahoochee River from Buford Dam during the two-year drought, the corps decided a few weeks ago to increase the releases.

"Why?" we all ask. This time it’s not mussels in the Gulf of Mexico, or power plants in Alabama. What in the world would lead to such a decision now?

Trout. The sparkling fish in the Chattahoochee, says EPD Director Carol Couch, need cooler water to thrive as the weather warms. So to keep the downstream flows cool, more water must be poured from the dam.

Trout?

Sorry, but we’ve seen this movie before, and we don’t much like the way it ends.

Weeks of above-average rainfall this spring accomplished something all the lake management, politicians and state officials could not pull off. Now with Lanier fuller and healthier in time for the summer tourism season, the sluices get opened up again.

The folks who enjoy Lanier are just now getting a chance to enjoy it again at its higher levels. More boat ramps are open and the parks may see increased traffic as the weather warms. There is a big kayaking event, the U.S. Marathon Canoe and Kayak National Team Trials, scheduled for May 9-10. Fishing for bass and other game species is at peak season.

Lake Lanier Islands resort is completing its massive renovation in time for the tourist season, and other businesses in the area are looking forward to a robust year to help stir a stalled economy.

But as long as the water releases remain higher, the improved water levels could be temporary. That leaves us looking to the heavens for more relief from the skies, and to the courts for some long-term relief to this never-ending saga.

Lanier’s protectors are baffled and dismayed that the corps won’t leave their beloved lake alone.

"The summer months are approaching, and in the past, they always tried to get to full pool by June 1," said Val Perry, executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association. "This almost guarantees we’ll not even get close to it."

"I know we had a lot of rain, but the reduced flow was a big part of those gains," said Grier Todd, chairman of the 1071 Coalition lake advocacy group. "I’m just afraid its going to stem the momentum we’ve had in getting the lake back up to full pool."

They’re right. We can’t keep doing this. It’s long past time for federal and state officials to come together on how Lake Lanier should be used and how the water in the Chattahoochee River basin should be shared. The so-called tri-state water wars have dragged on too long with no solution, even as a handful of lawsuits are pending in federal court. We’re long overdue for a resolution.

Some help may be on the way in the form of federal stimulus money. As part of the massive fiscal package geared toward priming the nation’s economic pump, the corps will get $293 million for 172 projects in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.

Some $8.3 million is targeted for improvements at Buford Dam and Lanier, $3 million of that to help finish the corps’ long-awaited update of the ACF water control manual. The manual will allow the corps to finally include water supply as a key function of the lake. The absence of that stated purpose in the original manual from the 1950s is the yeast that has given rise to some of the lawsuits concerning water releases.

The revised document would set guidelines for how much water should be released from Lanier under various circumstances, a blueprint that has been missing during the water dispute.

Lanier originally was impounded for flood control, navigation, hydroelectric power and recreation. But that’s when the metro Atlanta area was home to barely a million people and the Chattahoochee was an adequate source of water. Things change; growth has made Lanier more vital as a water supply for surrounding communities and others downstream, and that reality needs to be reflected in the manual.

The hope is that the manual’s update will help put an end to the pointless, interminable arguments over what Lanier’s key uses should be. Everyone downstream wants a piece of the action, but there’s only so much water to go around. If this precious resource is frittered away one bucketful at a time, it won’t be there for anyone a generation from now.

That’s also why the increased dam releases need to stop before the lake levels begin falling. Already, the weather has warmed and the soaking rains have given way to clearer skies and a few scattered showers. As summer approaches, increased evaporation will take its toll on the lake’s water levels, no matter how much is sent downstream.

The corps clearly is aware of this with its policy toward allowing dock permits. The moratorium on allowing dock construction hasn’t been eased because corps officials say the levels must remain at or above 1,064 feet for 30 days to ensure it won’t drop. That indicates they are prepared for a dry summer and dropping levels. If that standard is going to apply to docks, it should weigh into water needs as well.

But time remains an issue. The rewriting of the water manual could offer long-term relief, and we don’t know yet how the federal courts will rule on the various suits concerning Lanier’s water. Yet right now, the weather is getting hotter, the rains are slacking off and the dam’s gates are opening more frequently.

That’s an equation that adds up to trouble if someone doesn’t step in now and shut the door.

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