Drought has impact on both sides of Buford Dam

Boaters, sportsmen, businesses and residents who rely on a brimming Lake Lanier may wonder whether they should brace for another “mud bowl,” like the one seen four years ago.

Depleted water levels at the lake and unsteady stream flows along the Chattahoochee River are taking a toll as Georgia closes out one of its driest years in history.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake, has nearly tripled the amount of water it’s releasing each day from Buford Dam to feed thirsty rivers and dwindling lakes to the south. The releases amid drought conditions have brought the lake down to levels not seen in more than two years.

“We have no control over the level, but it has been a problem,” said Jon Stovall, who operates Bald Ridge Marina in Cumming. The marina has lost a number of slots to the creeping shoreline over the past couple of months, he said.

Most businesses point out that there is still plenty of water in the lake, and conditions are far from the parched shorelines seen during the 2007-08 drought when the lake fell 20 feet below its optimum level — or full pool — of 1,071 feet.

That sustained drain on the lake also sapped dollars from the local economy. A study commissioned by the Lake Lanier 1078 Coalition found the region lost close to $300 million a year in commercial activity.

After dropping four feet in the past four weeks, Lake Lanier now sits at 13.5 feet below full pool.

“You try to stay positive, because you heard all these people on TV and the news saying it would take 10 or 15 years for Lake Lanier to build back up,” said Jay Smith, owner of Lake Lanier Lodges in Flowery Branch. “But it took about 60 days, and that was with normal rainfall.”

Smith blames the economy rather than the lake levels for a slow season because he’s weathered two severe droughts before. Nevertheless, he’s hoping for a wet winter and spring.

The Corps has so far closed 32 of its 50 boat ramps due to the lower lake level.

Dawna Baker of Lawrenceville says that if the lake drops another 4 or 5 feet, she and her husband, Nelson, will no longer be able to leave their dock at Aqualand.

“Many of our dock neighbors have had to move their boat due to loss of water depth,” she said. “Fortunately we have the deepest slip at our dock and have not had to relocate yet.”

Things may be worse on the other side of the dam where the Corp.’s release from Lake Lanier is bloating the Chattahoochee.

While experienced rowers and kayakers are soaking up the extra surge in the Chattahoochee, fishermen are not pleased.

Patty Wissinger, superintendent of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, said the agency hasn’t received a single complaint from boaters and kayakers.

But fishermen were angry when the waters churned at the opening of “delayed harvest’ season Nov. 3, right about the time the Corps boosted its releases from Buford Dam.

“True anglers look forward to that day,” Wissinger said. “The water was really too high in the Chattahoochee for them to enjoy it.”

Mark Samuels of Atlanta was there.

“It was impossible to fish,” he said. “We haven’t ventured back since then.”

Chris Scalley of Roswell, who operates River Through Atlanta fishing tours on the Chattahoochee, says business has dropped off about 20 percent since the heavy releases began.

Scalley grew up on the river, so he knows a few tricks.

“We’ve had to create a window between the releases, basically outrun the flow,” he said.

But farther south near Morgan Falls in Sandy Springs, he said, the water levels remain fairly constant, so fishing is impossible.

Scalley said he’s also concerned about brown trout, which spawn this time of year. The added currents could affect the eggs, he said.

Even experienced rowers, who use the river for recreation and competitive training, are concerned.

Carl Moore said recreational paddlers or beginning paddlers may not realize that higher and faster flows change the character of the river.

“Low-hanging branches or trees that used to be above the water may now be partially submerged,” he said. “With the high flows there is more than a usual amount of floating debris, such as logs and tree limbs.”

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