Lake Lanier water level sinks to three-year low

Lake Lanier is at its lowest level since the historic drought of several years ago, and if much-needed rain doesn’t arrive soon, metro Atlanta could revisit the days of sweeping water restrictions and recreational nightmares.

Monday’s reading was 1,057.82 feet above sea level, 13 feet below optimum operating level or “full pool.”

The last time Lake Lanier was that low was March 2009, the waning days of a two-year drought that ravaged the state.

The difference this time is that the lake levels have not been consistantly low for a long period and the region is heading into vital winter months when rains traditionally recharge reservoirs in the Southeast.

“(This) is a concern and will require above-average rainfall during the winter and spring to bring the levels back next summer,” said Doug Hooker, Atlanta Regional Commission executive director. “A dryer-than-average winter could be especially problematic for both metro Atlanta and our downstream neighbors if we are heading for another drought next year.”

An abnormally dry November in Georgia has put strains on the river system including Lake Lanier.

Statewide, this is Georgia’s 17th driest year on record, going back 118 years. North Georgia is running about 3- inches below normal rainfall, said Jeff Dobur, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

Forecasts call for a “slightly better chance for above-normal rainfall” over the next three months, he said.

“We’re coming to a critical time period when rains are needed in January and February to recharge the lake,” Dobur said. “If we don’t get the rains, that will be a little ominous.”

Measurements from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show the lake level has dropped almost four and half feet over the past month. That’s the largest one-month decline in more than five years.

Businesses and boaters alike have taken note.

“It’s all negative,” said John Stovall, owner of Bald Ridge Marina in Cumming.

The lower lake levels have cost Stovall slots for boats, he said, and forced him to relocate some of his patrons to new locations.

“Other than the severe drought in 2007-08, we do not recall ever witnessing the recent drastic drop in water level as it has over the last month,” said Shawn Baker, who have a boat out of Aqualand with her husband.

That drought cost the region close to $300 million a year in commercial activity, according to a study by Bleakley Advisory Group, PBS&J and Georgia State University economist Dr. Bruce Seaman.

The Corps has been operating in drought mode since May, meaning it releases only the minimum amount of water necessary to meet downstream needs, Corps sp0kesman Pat Robbins said.

Those releases are required to maintain water quality in the Chattahoochee River and water supply for metro Atlanta. It also schedules releases to help meet flow requirements for endangered species along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River System that extends into Florida and Alabama.

During dry conditions, the Corps always operates the system from the south moving north, meaning water needs are met by releases from the southernmost reservoirs first.

Lake Lanier also serves as a direct water source to four government utilities. Gwinnett County, the largest, draws between 70-75 million gallons per day.

“We’re not in any kind of panic mode,” said Ron Peters, deputy director of Gwinnett County Water Resources. “Our hope is that springs rains will help it recover.”

Gwinnett County has two intake facilities at Lake Lanier, both equipped to tap the lake well below its all-time low of 1040 feet, Peters said.

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