Lanier and Allatoona boosters want lake levels permanently raised

Scarred by the drought, and fearful of a permanent reduction in water levels, homeowners, boaters and marina operators on lakes Lanier and Allatoona are pushing Washington to raise the reservoirs.

For Lanier, the goal is 2 more feet of water year-round. For Allatoona, anywhere from 2 to 7 feet of additional wintertime water is the target.

A few feet here or there might seem insignificant to the untrained eye. But millions of additional gallons of water would keep the lakes running high and looking pretty.

Higher reservoirs, according to river boosters, would also insulate Atlanta and large swaths of south Georgia, Alabama and Florida from drought. And the lakes would still remain large enough, and their dams tall enough, to handle big rains and prevent flooding.

“Keeping as much water here as possible makes the entire Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin robust and usable for everybody’s purposes,” said Wilton Rooks, a vice president of the nonprofit Lake Lanier Association.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the reservoirs, began releasing water last week; which all but guarantees that Lanier and Allatoona will remain below hoped-for levels.

Lake Lanier hit an all-time low during the drought of 2007-08. Docks ended in mud. Boats hit tree stumps. The reservoirs appeared ring-around-the-bathtub dirty.

Both lakes recently crested their Corps-designated peaks. But the Corps, as it does every year, has been reducing levels to ready for winter rains.

Recent court rulings heighten fears that the Corps will be forced to permanently lower Lanier and Allatoona even further. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson said that Lanier is only authorized for flood control, navigation and power supply -- not drinking water or recreation.

He gave Georgia three years to work out a water-sharing deal with Alabama and Florida, which also tap the Chattahoochee River, or else Atlanta would return to mid-1970s water withdrawal levels from Lanier. Roughly 3 million metro Atlantans depend on Lanier for drinking water.

Georgia officials are scrambling to find ways to keep Atlanta afloat in three years in case Magnuson’s decision stands. They’ve proposed construction of new reservoirs in Hall and Dawson counties. But reservoirs are expensive, lengthy projects. The yet-to-open Hickory Log Creek reservoir in Canton, for example, cost more than $100 million and has taken a decade to build.

“The cheapest, most environmentally-friendly water supply is to use the reservoirs already in place,” said Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative. “It makes a whole lot more sense to increase the yield from Allatoona or Lanier, by increasing the amount of water stored there, than by building new reservoirs upstream.”

The Lake Lanier Association proposes keeping Lanier at 1073 feet above sea level year-round unless a drought requires more water be sent downstream.  Full pool is 1071 feet.

The Lake Allatoona Preservation Authority wants its lake to stay between 825 and 830 feet during the winter. The Corps is currently dropping Allatoona to 823 feet as it does each year.

Raising water levels at Lanier and Allatoona wouldn’t cost much. Lanier’s flood pool tops out at 1085 feet, Allatoona’s at 863 feet. Both have enough room to handle higher water levels and heavy rains without adding to the dams’ heights.

But Judge Magnuson prohibited any expansion of the reservoirs unless Congress first signs off. And downstream communities and businesses that rely on the rivers flowing from Lanier and Allatoona strongly oppose adding water to the reservoirs.

“Simply holding more water in Lake Lanier means less water flowing downstream into Alabama,” said Todd Stacy, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s spokesman. “Unless this proposal is part of a larger plan that includes measures to mitigate the disruption of flows, Alabama would ultimately be put at a disadvantage. That would be unacceptable.”

Raising reservoir levels faces opposition closer to home too.

“At 1073 feet, you’d see impacts at all of Lanier’s boat ramps and other Corps facilities along the shore,” said Lisa Coghlan, a Corps spokeswoman. “It can cause bank destabilization too when water stays up and the ground becomes saturated.”

But Brent Pearson, operations manager for a company that owns four marinas on Allatoona and another on Lanier, said most homeowners and businesses build docks and homes with high-water marks in mind.

“Everybody knows at Allatoona and Lanier that the Corps will flood the lake, so they don’t ever build a permanent structure anywhere close to the flood plain,” he said. “Going up two feet (at Lanier) is not a problem. Everybody’s got a buffer.”

The Corps recently received some stimulus money partly for an environmental study of Lanier which could tackle water-level questions. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) is also pushing the Corps to revisit mandated lake levels for Lanier and Allatoona.

The Georgia General Assembly has unanimously supported raising reservoir levels in years past. And Gov. Sonny Perdue’s water “contingency” task force will likely recommend higher water levels.

“It is simply absurd that we can’t better manage Lake Lanier and take full advantage of the current abundant supply,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle wrote in an October 14 letter to the Corps.