February 28, 2019 Cumming - High water level of Lake Lanier at Mary Alice Park on Thursday, February 28, 2019. Lake Lanier levels are the highest they’ve been in 40 years, according to WSB. The high water levels are damaging dock moorings but the Corps may not be able to release any water just yet because of more rain on the way. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Lake Lanier reaches record water levels, causing flooding, damage

Heavy winter rains have pushed Lake Lanier to its highest water levels in 42 years, and residents that once endured years of drought are discovering a different set of problems.

“I would either need to swim or kayak out to my dock to access my boat right now,” said Joanna Cloud from her lakefront home in Cumming.

The high waters are lapping into the yards of homes and overtaking docks and walkways, said Cloud, the Lake Lanier Association’s executive director. Docks moored in ground that is now soft or underwater are beginning to float away.

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The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees Lanier and the Buford Dam, says that despite the problems, they cannot safely release water to significantly lower the lake’s level. Sending water down the river as more rain is predicted this weekend could potentially cause flooding in areas to the south. Another 2 to 3 inches of rain is predicted for metro Atlanta through Sunday.

The water level in Lake Lanier Thursday afternoon stood at 1,075 feet, which is nearly 5 feet above what is considered “full pool,” according to Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Katie Walls. On Feb. 24, the lake reached a level not seen since 1977, topping out at 1,076.11 feet, the third highest level on record, Walls said.

For residents, it’s a stark contrast to recent droughts. It was only in 2007 when the lake stood at 1,050 feet or nearly 20 feet below full pool. According to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, that drought lasted until 2009, and left docks sitting in dry mud.

The risk to the public posed by the rising waters is partially mitigated simply because it’s off-season for the lake; few people are out boating, fishing and swimming in the damp late-winter weather. However, floating debris such as logs or fallen trees that have washed off the shores are causing a problem for docks and boats.

At least four unmoored docks have been reported drifting in the lake and Cloud is currently trying to corral two runaway boats that have been battering a nearby dock.

The lake is so high at Cloud’s home that it almost reaches an outlet on her dock’s electrical box. That poses a public safety issue, as the electricity from those boxes can travel through water, Cloud said.

“There are 10,000 docks on Lake Lanier. I can’t tell you all 10,000 have turned off the power to the breaker box,” Cloud said. Those with electrical boxes that may be near the high waters should cut off the power from their home circuit breaker, Cloud said.

The Army Corps is working to manage the level of the lake without overflowing the Chattahoochee River it feeds into. The Corps is still releasing water from the dam, but the flow has been reduced by about two thirds, Walls said. Because both bodies of water are already high, there’s only so much water the Corps can release.

“You can’t just let the floodgates open. It would flood Atlanta,” Cloud said. “If there was a great big drought downstream, we could release more, but we have to meter it out to protect the citizens south of us.”

Water releases from the Buford Dam have brought the Chattahoochee River’s levels just below flood stage. The river is moving at “very high flow levels” too dangerous for activities like kayaking and fishing, according to Jason Ulseth of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

“Looking at the river, the flows are about as high as I’ve ever seen them,” Ulseth said.

One spot in Duluth where the water is typically two feet high was recorded at 10 feet on Tuesday, Channel 2 Meteorologist Eboni Deon said.

The Chattahoochee has suffered from the relentless rains as much as Lanier, Ulseth said. The dam releases have caused “high levels of erosion” on the banks of the Chattahoochee within 12 miles of Buford Dam, Ulseth said. Erosion allows more sediment to enter the water and makes riverbanks “deteriorate over time,” Ulseth said.

For now, the reduced dam releases will continue. And the rain may continue to fall.

It’s not clear when water levels will start to subside, as rainfall is only one determining factor in the lake’s level, Cloud said. For now, all that can be done is to wait.

“It could take a couple weeks,” Cloud said. “It could take a couple months.”

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Rainfall totals:

  • December 2018: 11.83 inches, 7.93 inches above normal for the month
  • January: 6.23 inches, 2 inches above normal
  • February (through Feb. 26): 3.82 inches, 0.9 inches below normal
  • Still to come: 2 to 3 inches of rain in metro Atlanta through Sunday

Lanier Lake levels:

  • Full pool: 1,071 feet
  • Feb. 24: 1076.11 (third highest on record, highest since April 1977)
  • Feb. 28: 1,075.74 feet

The high levels are having an impact further down stream along the Chattahoochee

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