Buford Dam: A unique little powerhouse

There’s something comforting about the warning sirens at the Buford Dam.

Much like a train whistle, the distant, low-pitched whir becomes a familiar sound to those living nearby.

“But boy is it powerful,” he said.

What’s that over there? “Oh, that’s a welding station in case a lil’ piece of something breaks.” He points to an anvil, imprinted with the date 1945.

What’s this floor made of? “This is a white pine floor, it’s original,” he says pointing to the cubes of intricate wood, separated into grids. “I’ve been told it’s one of the few left in Georgia.”

How old is this elevator? “It’s original, so about sixty years. Look up.” He points to the hole carved out around the light structure where you can see the ropes and pulleys, surrounded by stone, slowly pulling the cart up the four-floor shaft.

The powerhouse’s “rooms” are very diverse -- one is the size of a walk-in-closet, and houses a turbine spinning piercingly loud at 100 rotations per minute. Another is the size of a football field and houses the large, trampoline-sized generators.

Quinley opens the door to a long, dark tunnel excavated by dynamite--this is hard hat territory. The granite tunnel and floors are soaked with water. Quinley says the humidity of summer pulls moisture through the granite. Then he mentions we are "inside" the dam. Although the tunnel is humid, it provides a cool, refreshing break from the heat outside.

"The water temperature is approximately 52 degrees Fahrenheit year round, so it works very well," Coghlan said. "The system uses water and heat exchangers [coolers] only with fans supplying air across [vents]. During winter months water is shut off and heat exchangers are drained to keep them from freezing."

The cold water helps more than humans, it also fosters trout.

The Buford trout hatchery is located on the Forsyth County side of the lake, downstream from the dam on the banks of the Chattahoochee. The hatchery breeds trout, and then releases them for fishing recreation downstream and to parts of the lake.

Another requirement of healthy trout is aerated water -- water with a high oxygen content.

But what about when Georgia experiences a drought? Is the same amount of water released?

There is a rumored “city” below the lake. When the land was excavated and flooded in 1946 to create Lake Lanier, a few structures were left behind.

She said she had heard of divers going down to take photos, “but it is very dark and I’ve never seen any.”

The lake also has a lot of  "standing timber" beneath its surface--trees that are left over from the excavation that are still standing.

On May 2, divers searching for the body of a 27-year-old who drowned and said his body may have fallen into the trees beneath the surface, making him difficult to find.

"When you start entering an underwater forest, it becomes a dangerous operation," Capt. Jason Shivers with the Forsyth County fire department told the AJC on May 7 when the body was still not recovered.

Drownings and water-recreation deaths happen every year on the lake, and Coghlan said with the dam's daily release, the Corps does everything in its control to warn swimmers and boaters.

"Water released from Buford Dam can dramatically change downriver conditions and create a potentially hazardous situation to the recreating public," Coghlan said. While she pointed out many personal factors to how a person will react to the change in water level, Coghlan referenced the warning sirens, AM radio broadcasts and signs warning of the potential for a sudden change in water level. For 2010, Coghlan said there have been five "recreational deaths" at the lake--deaths that occurred while boating, fishing or swimming.

The dam is operated to maintain a lake level of 1,071 feet above sea level--the exact same level since the lake's inception more than 60 years ago.

In late 1949, the U.S. government gave Georgia $750,000 to build the Buford Dam and powerhouse. The actual dam is made of earth and concrete. The powerhouse required crews to use dynamite to blast a U-shaped space through granite rock structures, to hollow out an area for the powerhouse and release gates.

According to the Army Corps’ Web site, three million Georgians, including Atlantans, depend on water which originates at the dam. But the drinking water, stored in the lake itself or the Chattahoochee, was the subject of a lot of debate from Florida and Alabama governments, which in the past argued providing drinking water was not the lake's original purpose.

On July 17, 2009, a U.S. district court judge ordered Georgia to reach an agreement with Florida and Alabama within three years. Georgia hopes to persuade Congress to validate the lake as a water source. Meanwhile, smaller governments--like the city of  Gainesville-- have started making plans for a new water treatment plant at the Cedar Creek reservoir.

It took two years to fill the lake with water—and the dam didn’t begin operating until a year after it was full. The dam would undergo minor fixes here and there, but was pretty solid, lasting several years beyond its 40-year equipment life expectancy.

Even after the rehab, the dam is operated remotely.

"We generate when additional power is needed or a generator goes down at another power plant," Quinley said. "Most of the time we generate in the mornings or afternoon when people are getting up, cooking,  [or using] hair blowers, lights--and when people are going home from work." Quinley said it's rare, but if need be, they can operate the dam at night.

The boys at the dam look forward to the daily release of water.

It’s 2:57 and the ground is starting to rumble.

Several workers start to collect around the railing. Some come out with a sandwich, or a cigarette, with their eyes focused downward. As the water gets louder and more powerful, they stop chatting.

Quinley points to a herd of little black and gray goats -- about 12 of them -- gathering behind a fence around the U-shaped outcropping that surrounds the powerhouse.

Across the bridge, a family takes pictures of the rapids.

“There’s a misconception,” he said. “People don’t realize just how much water it is.”

As the white water roars, he watches the fruit of his labor.