Lake Lanier businesses anxious about low lake levels

Georgia won the latest round in court, but from the expanding muddy red banks of Lake Lanier it looks and feels a lot like metro Atlanta is still losing the water wars.

The lake is down9 feet and dropping at a rate of about a foot a week, giving rise to memories of the great drought of 2007-2009 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drained 20 feet out of Lanier -- and some say sucked the life out of the local economy.

The fear is the lake will continue to sink with a dry winter in the forecast and next summer could be as disastrous as 2008 when Lanier was down 15 feet and tourism was off by about 880,000 visitors and recreation revenue was down $90.2 million.

“They’ve been dropping it like crazy for the last 15 days and it’s got people scared,” said Don Hunt, 54, a boat mechanic working at Holiday Marina Tuesday afternoon. “I know Atlanta needs the water, but they can’t be letting it out that fast.”

The 38,000-acre lake about 40 miles north of downtown Atlanta is a recreational site that draws about 7.5 million visitors a year and metro area’s biggest source of drinking water at the heart of the tri-state water wars between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. The lake, and the Chattahoochee River that feeds it, provide water for about 2.6 million Atlantans.

Earlier this month, Georgia won the latest round in court when the Atlanta-based U.S. 11th District Court of Appeals denied hearing another appeal from Alabama and Florida to overturn a June ruling by the circuit court that said water supply is an authorized purpose of the lake. The case will now probably go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Corps announced about three weeks ago it was stepping up releases to replenish rivers and streams parched by a summer drought now stretching into the fall. It predicted that, based on weather projections, it will continue the releases and Lanier will be down another three feet by late October.

This week Corps spokesman E. Patrick Robbins said the Corps cannot predict how low Lanier might go.

Speculation along the lake is the Corps will drop Lanier another foot and then hold it at 1,061 feet, 10 feet below its capacity, known as full pool. Not so, said Robbins. The Corps will continue to release as much water as needed to replenish streams.

“In the upcoming year it is possible that we could be looking at very low levels again, but that is too far out to make any predictions,” said Robbins. “It will all be dependent on what occurs during the winter and spring months, normally the wettest.”

By most accounts, business and tourism has rebounded since 2008. Summer opened with Lanier just below the mid-May full pool mark of 1,071 feet and dropping steadily but gradually until early September. Through August, 5.4 million people visited the lake, according to the Corps.

That’s roughly on track with last year when the lake drew about 7 million visitors. That matches up with Marty Allagood’s experience. He runs the Bait Shack at Lanier in Bald Ridge Marina, in Cumming. “We had a great summer,” he said.

But, what he sees now from his porch, which the lake nearly touched last May, isn’t so great: a growing band of dirt and mud with the lake on the other side of it, about 40 feet down the bank, and heading in the other direction.

“It’s just so ugly,” he said. “And we just don’t know when the drop is going to stop.”

Darren Matthews works for Singleton Marine Group at Holiday Marina on the other side of the lake. For him, it’s been a good year, too, with boat sales up and the slips staying busy at the marina where about 1,500 boats are moored.

The dip in the lake is a lot different than the drought and draw down of 2008, he said: "That wasn’t just about the lake going down, it was about the economy going down,” he said. “The whole boat business went bad. We did a lot of business with boats being repossessed.”

This time around lake dwellers and businesses know what to expect, even if it drops to the historic low of December 2007, just below 1,051 feet, said Matthews.

“I would be lying to you if I told you I didn’t wish the Corps would come up with a better plan,” he said. “I remember when it was so high it was up in the parking lot, and of course we were [complaining] then.”

Even at its lowest point, said Matthews, “there’s still a lot of lake out there.” Jennifer Z. Miller, vice president of the Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau, sounded equally upbeat. Her group is “optimistic that water levels will stabilize,” and, in the meantime, Lanier is “still open for business,” she said.

Hunt, the boat mechanic, said he think the water releases are worse than what the Corps is saying. “I’ve lived up here 22 years, and I look at that level now, it’s not down 9 feet, it’s down 13 or 14 feet,” he said. “And I think they’re trying to keep that from the public.”

Tourism and the lake level are strongly interlinked, according to a 2010 economic impact study funded by 1,071 Coalition, a group that advocates keeping Lanier at full pool.

After the lake hit bottom in December 2007, and hovered around 1,055 feet for the summer of 2008, about 880,000 fewer people visited in the five-county area surrounding Lake Lanier, according to the study. Recreation spending declined by $90.2 million and sales tax revenue decreased by $1.9 million.

A full Lanier adds a “premium” of $5.3 billion to $6.4 billion in additional value to nearly 15,500 lakefront homes, and that generates an additional $52.1 million to $63 million annually in county and school district property tax revenue, according to the study.

When the lake drops so does just about everything else.

Joanna Cloud, executive director of the Lake Lanier Association, said she's confident the Corps is doing the best job it can, under its mandate, in trying to maintain the lake level while replenishing streams it’s obligated to keep at certain level because of environmental regulations and downstream species threatened by low water levels.

"What can you do, it's a drought?" she said. And the forecast doesn't look good. Her group has been pushing to get the Corps to raise the lake by two feet, so that full pool is 1,073 feet, which means it would have an additional about 22 billion gallons of water in reserve.

That campaign, so far, has gone nowhere. Meantime, as the lake drops, every day the tension rises, if just a little bit. Allagood says he's looking forward to the off-season and not noticing every day from the porch of his bait shack that the lake has grown more distant.

"This drought is no comparison to the one in 2007," he says. "But everybody who lives up here on the lake, they're all wondering the same thing: Are we going there again?"