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.
Placed a few miles apart, each siren starts 15 minutes before water is released from the dam. Captain Cecil Quinley with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who has worked at the Buford Dam Powerhouse for 11 years, says the sirens run for 38 minutes because water takes a while to travel down the Chattahoochee River.
“But boy is it powerful,” he said.
There’s a reason the facility is called a “powerhouse.” Sure, the dam’s primary purpose was to prevent flooding when it was built in 1946, but it also provides electricity to over 25,000 homes in the area, assists in navigational water levels in waterways further south, promotes a healthy growth and reproductive environments for trout fisheries and -- most obviously -- creates the boating/jet skiing Mecca that is Lake Lanier.
Each day this summer, the dam opens its flood gates at approximately 2:55 p.m. By the end of the day, the dam will have released 387,763,200 gallons of water. Capt. Quinley shows up to make sure the big moment goes smoothly.
“You know this is really a small, small plant, compared to a Hoover or something,” Quinley said. “But it’s unique. Every hydropower plant has a uniqueness about it -- one: we’re one of the furthest south trout streams in the nation because the water is so cold, and two: we’re a water supply for a major city.”
Standing at the base of the almost 200-foot dam, it doesn't feel small. But, comparatively, Buford Dam is small. Carter's Dam in Chatsworth is 445 feet tall. Hoover Dam is 726 feet tall.
The lake created by the dam spans three counties--Hall, Forsyth and a small part of Gwinnett. The powerhouse is located in Forsyth County, while the majority of campgrounds and the visitor center for the lake is in Hall.
Stepping behind the heavy steel restricted access gates of the Buford Powerhouse feels like stepping into a history museum. Quinley is modest about the antique treasures still functioning in the building and beneath the solid rock dam.
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.
“This is how we cool the building,” Quinley says. “We don’t use freon in our AC units, we’re just lucky our water is so cold.”
Lisa Coghlan, spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers, explained exactly how cool water originating in the Georgia mountains could supply air conditioning for the facility.
“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.
Pat Markey, spokesman for the Buford Dam trout hatchery said water temperatures of 65 degrees or less are integral for healthy trout growth and reproduction.
"Everything is amplified as far as needs go in a hatchery, Markey said. "When we get a lot of rainfall, the water temperatures rise, but the cold water from the dam helps regulate it."
Another requirement of healthy trout is aerated water -- water with a high oxygen content.
Quinley said the main source of aeration is right as the water emerges from the dam-- the visible “white water.”
"The dam is important because in maintains a minimum flow, which in turn maintains a constant supply of cold clean water to keep the trout healthy," Markey said.
The biggest trout caught from the hatchery? "18-and-a-half pounds," Markey said. "It was caught in 2002 in the Chattahoochee by a gentleman from Rome, Ga., -- it still holds the state record."
But what about when Georgia experiences a drought? Is the same amount of water released?
“We have a national organization that helps us determine how much we can and can’t release, but it pretty much goes every day,” Quinley said.
But when lake levels are low, a piece of Lake Lanier history is often brought to the surface -- or a few feet from it.
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.
Coghlan said it's not a rumor.
“I remember one drought we had, where a couple of fisherman saw some of the concrete structures of a race track about 12 or 15 feet under the water,” Coghlan said. “About 700 parcels of property were bought out, and all gravesites, schools and churches were relocated before the government started excavating.” Coghlan said there are very few structures, like the race track, a shed and a barn, but they are spread out across the lake.
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.
The main “units” of the dam -- turbines, generators and flow metering systems -- underwent a $17.25 million federally-funded rehabilitation from 2003-2005, Coghlan said.
Quinley points to an old display gauge, left on a table “just for people to look at.”
Up until 5 years ago, the dam operated without computers.
“[Before the rehab], everything was electromechanical,” Quinley said. “It was replaced with a computer.”
Even after the rehab, the dam is operated remotely.
That’s right -- Quinley and other Army Corps of Engineers employees don’t actually push the go-button. A microwave signal is sent from Carters Dam in Chatsworth. Engineers there also operate the dam at Lake Allatoona.
The time of the release, although mostly consistent during the summer, it dependent upon the need for electricity in the area. The Buford Dam is a "peak demand power plant"--meaning they tend to operate during peak electricity usage hours.
"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.
“Ya’ hear that?” Quinley says, smiling.
Sure enough, white rapids start gushing out of what before was vacant concrete walls. It looks like something a kayaker would enjoy.
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.
“Our maintenance crew,” he says. “They feed off the vegetation on the horseshoe.” Quinley says hiring people to cut the grass and weeds on the rocky surface would be more expensive than the four-legged ground crew.
Across the bridge, a family takes pictures of the rapids.
Quinley chats with the other engineers as he looks down at 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.