Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer, a last chance to enjoy a trip to the beach before school, work and cooler weather take precedence in the weeks to come.
At the start of the summer, we pondered the future of Lake Lanier as it marks its 50th year while facing enormous stress from growth, drought, political wrangling and increased demands. Those questions remain, with no answers forthcoming and the concerns about Lanier's future growing each day.
Truth is, year No. 50 has been a tough one for the lake. North Georgia has gone nearly a full summer with very little rain, dropping the lake level below 1,062 feet, some nine feet below full pool. Some recent summer storms have helped green up lawns and water tomato plants, but it's not enough to offset a year in which rainfall remains roughly half of what it should be.
The drought has a double-whammy impact on the lake: While less water is coming in to fill it, more is demanded to be let out downstream to residents in metro Atlanta and beyond. Many counties and cities have strengthened watering bans to encourage conservation, but it only helps so much when new development continues to slurp up more water.
Growth around the lake has reached the saturation point, to where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has maintained a moratorium on new dock construction. Lanier, the corps says, is near its capacity of 10,615 docks.
The push to discharge more treated wastewater into the lake could, in the long run, threaten its ecosystem and, at some point, the quality of the water we drink. But what are the alternatives?
When the Chattahoochee River was first dammed in the mid-1950s, the idea was that Lanier would provide power, flood control, navigation and drinking water for the million or so folks living in metro Atlanta at the time. Recreation and tourism soon emerged as key benefits as well, and later the needs of other communities downriver from Atlanta in Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
In retrospect, one could see that a 38,000-acre lake should have been more than sufficient to handle the region's needs in all of those areas. No one could have imagined the kind of growth we have seen since: A metro area of 5 million plus people, including growing suburban and exurban communities drawing more and more water from the system. Thousands upon thousands of fresh, thirsty lawns, pools waiting to be filled, new dishwashers and washing machines in every new home, hundreds of businesses that use water for manufacturing and production.
If you weigh in the demand and consider the supply, we come to a simple conclusion: Lanier can't handle it alone. North Georgia needs to plan and develop more sources for water. And if that process doesn't begin soon, growth will overwhelm Lanier before an alternative can be created.
A recent study by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce shows that metro Atlanta relies on the Chattahoochee for 75 percent of its water, the smallest river in the nation serving a city of such size. That's why the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District was created in 2001 to devise a long-range water use strategy based on reallocation of existing sources, more use of treated wastewater, aggressive conservation and creation of new reservoirs. Local governments have signed onto this plan, but it needs to be fully implemented. Everyone can't continue to draw from the same source indefinitely.
If changes aren't made, it's hard to see how Lanier can feed the state's increasing demand for water while still serving as a tourism draw for some 8 million visitors each year. Will folks still come if the beaches are closed and the shores are exposed mud banks? Will parks and resorts retain their allure when the lake is no longer a picturesque beauty?
The time for a reasonable political solution is long past. Georgia, Florida and Alabama are still fighting over how to allocate water, not just from Lanier and the Chattahoochee but from the Lake Allatoona river system as well. Everyone wants more water to nurture growth, but there is only so much available. Either we learn to share it wisely or we all will suffer.
Originally published Sept. 2, 2007