Dry heaves

Lake Lanier's docks and trestles stand on high ground -- and it's not even summer yet

Wednesday March 7, 2001 12:04 am EST

Optimism is in as short supply as rainfall these days in the affluent communities around Lake Lanier.
The lake, which sits behind Buford Dam, 40 miles up the Chattahoochee River from Atlanta, is at its lowest level ever for this time of year. Despite recent showers, Atlanta's precipitation was nearly 4 inches below normal for the first two months of the year. And state climatologist David Stooksbury is predicting that the drought, now entering its fourth year, will only get worse.
Two more dry summers, says the Atlanta Regional Commission's Pat Stevens, and the lake's water may not be able to reach Buford Dam's outtake pipes, which usually send at least 750 cubic feet of flow per second into the Chattahoochee River and toward Atlanta's sinks, toilets and lawn sprinklers. Lanier — and most of the metro area — would be out of usable water.
"It's past the point where we'd expect to get rains to replenish the lake and we haven't gotten them," says Stevens, chief of environmental planning for the Atlanta Regional Commission. "It has to rain an inch a day for two weeks to make up the deficit."
And even if the lake does return to normal levels, it won't be able to accommodate new growth downstream, says Pat Taylor, assistant manager of Lake Lanier for the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the lake. He cites EPD projections that target 2030 as the cutoff year for any new demands on the lake.
"Metro Atlanta is consuming at a rate more than we can sustain," Taylor warns.
The odd/even watering restrictions, which were imposed by the state Environmental Protection Division last summer and remain in effect for 15 metro Atlanta counties, will likely be tightened if the drought worsens.
Meanwhile, the current elevation of the lake — 1,058 feet above sea level as of last Saturday and rising ever so slightly — is at least 13 feet below "full pool" of 1,071 feet, which would typically be achieved by mid-April. The last time Lanier hit full pool was June 1998.
Buoys that normally would mark the outer edge of the safe swimming area at public beaches lie on damp red clay. Depth-mark poles stand completely out of the water like misplaced fence posts. Only 11 of 51 public boat launches are open now. And, since fall, the corps has placed 120 buoys in the lake marking new water hazards — exposed hilltops and reefs that were deep under water last summer.
Ron Seder, vice president of the preservationist Lake Lanier Association, says his familiarity with the lake's topography hasn't prevented him from running his boat aground. And several private docks in Seder's lakeside subdivision east of Cumming sit useless more than 100 feet from the water's edge.
The lake's recreation industry banks on the 7.5 million visitors who flock there each year, the bulk of whom come between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In a 1996 Atlanta Marine Trade Association study, Lake Lanier is credited with bringing $2 billion to the regional economy annually.
The top draw is probably Lake Lanier Islands, which attracts more than 1 million visitors a year. The state-owned, privately run resort boasts a popular beach and water park, as well as a golf course, hotel and boat rental. California-based KSL Recreation, which signed a 60-year sublease with the state in 1996 to operate the resort, has one of the bigger stakes in the health of the lake's economy.
Although Lake Lanier Islands splits its marketing efforts evenly between business and leisure visitors, president and CEO Ray Williams downplays the drought's effects on his summer revenues. Most operations aren't affected by water levels, he says, and those that are, such as the beach and marina, are in deep enough water to weather the drought.
But many smaller marinas may not be so lucky. Scott Sears, general manager of Lanier Harbor, a 450-slip dry storage marina in Buford, says his end of the lake needs to rise another 3 feet before any but the smallest boats can be launched. He expects enough water to start the boating season in April, but doubts the lake level will hold up through summer. Sears is telling his customers to hit the water early this year because they may not get a chance later on.
Ken Jonick, who opened the Whitworth Inn bed and breakfast 12 years ago near Flowery Branch, watched a nearby boat dealership in 1988 go from doing a thriving business to bankruptcy. "And that drought was nothing like this one," he says, adding that he saw his own business began to taper off last fall. "We'll still exist, but we expect the area to take a hit."
A 1998 corps study projects that boating trips would be cut in half if the summer lake elevation fell to 1,065 feet and would drop to a mere 13 percent of normal at around 1,055 feet — just 3 feet below its current level — mainly because boaters couldn't find open ramps, or because they'd be afraid of running into reefs or each other. Most veteran lake watchers don't expect levels to top 1,065 before the early summer months, when the lake traditionally levels off and begins to recede heading into the fall.
Another dry summer would probably bring the lake to historic lows — under 1,052 feet — by the end of the year, says the ARC's Stevens.
Lake Lanier's woes aren't just rooted in the drought. They are also closely tied to a regional water-supply crisis that could ripple not only across the lake's economy but through metro Atlanta and even downstream to South Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
The Chattahoochee, which both feeds the lake and is fed by it, may be the most heavily used river of its size in the country. More than 3 million residents of metro Atlanta depend on the river to supply their drinking water and to whisk away their sewage. A national recreation area along the river's banks is the region's largest expanse of greenspace; Georgia Power counts on river water to generate electricity; and downstream communities rely on the Chattahoochee for drinking water, industry, irrigation and vital fisheries.
Those heavy demands have spurred a decade-long "water war" involving Georgia, Alabama, Florida and the corps, which reached another milestone last fall when the river's most controversial use — as a very expensive navigational water for a handful of barges — drew billions of gallons of water from the already low lake.
Although the corps had already been heavily criticized for draining two large downstream reservoirs to float 10 commercial barges in the spring — and siphoning water from Lanier to make up the deficit — the agency again released water from Lanier in December to accommodate a single barge carrying three huge steam generators to a Southern Co.-owned nuclear power plant in south Alabama. Georgia's largest lake has yet to recover.
Lanier "would be fine right now if hadn't been for the fall release," the ARC's Stevens explains. On Feb. 23, the state EPD relaxed the amount of water the corps is required to release daily into the Chattahoochee at Buford Dam. The measure is expected to help nudge the lake level up as much as four feet by late spring, assuming rain continues at its current pace. But releases likely will have to be increased with the arrival of warmer weather.
The outcome of the water war also could affect future lake releases as downstream users battle for water rights. Robert Kerr, the state's chief negotiator, says Georgia is determined to maintain strict control over its water reserves in Lanier, but some lake preservationists are concerned that the state could lose that control if the dispute is settled in a courtroom. The states have a May 1 deadline to reach an agreement, but have missed four such deadlines since 1998.
Last month, the state sued the corps over its lake management priorities; the EPD, which wants drinking water demands to take precedence over barge traffic and hydro-electric use, was responding to a December lawsuit by a group of 21 electric utilities that seeks more water for power generation.
Despite all this, growth around the lake continues, creating new demand and water-quality problems because of construction runoff from subdivisions and roads. Although real estate closings have slowed in recent months, 2000 was the strongest year ever for property sales around the lake, topping $120 million, says Frank Norton Jr., president of the Norton Agency in Gainesville, which tracks lakeside sales.
In fact, with development still sprawling, Norton offers this prediction: "In another 20 years, Lake Lanier is going to be at the heart of metro Atlanta."
Won't that be fun.

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