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Lake Lanier remains low despite recent rain

Prompts concerns from officials

 
POSTED: March 17, 2017 5:00 a.m.
Tracie Pike/

Though the lake may look like a flat bed, low water levels are dangerous because the man-made lake drops off sharply.

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With cool weather recently chilling much of north Georgia, many residents are looking forward to warm, sun-soaked days on Lake Lanier, but officials are concerned about low water levels, which was 10 feet below full pool Thursday.

Though the lake’s current level of 1,061 feet is still a long way from its record low of 1,050.79 feet in December 2007, Lake Lanier Association Executive Director Joanna Cloud said she worries about the lack of rainfall this winter.

“The lake level is very concerning,” she said. “The drought forecast isn’t looking good, and from a recreational and safety standpoint, as the lake gets into lower levels, more things begin to emerge, creating [risks] for boaters and others.

“Then, as soon as we get to 80-plus degree weather, we have to consider surface evaporation and its effect.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of north Georgia is in a months-long drought, with Forsyth County categorized as severe.

Neighboring counties, such as Dawson and Lumpkin and a small corner of north Hall, are worse off — their classification is extreme drought, which is one step below the most intense category, exceptional drought.

Though it is not to the point of the 2007 drought where flooded neighborhoods, graveyards and a race track began to reappear, last year at this time, the lake was 1,070.15 feet, and in 2015 it measured at 1,070.41 feet.

Even five years ago, the lake was higher than it is currently, coming in at 1,065.19 feet above sea level.

“It’s kind of ironic,” said Nick Baggett, natural resource manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Last year, we had flooding conditions that were flooding some of our parks, and this year we have drought conditions. As to predicting what’s going to happen, that’s up to Mother Nature. But it’s looking like we may not achieve enough rain to fill the lake to full pool.”

Baggett said from the Corps’ standpoint, public safety is their biggest concern when lake levels are low.

“When the lake drops, you have a different environment for which to recreate,” he said. “We have designated swim areas and for a lot of those, the swim line is [currently] on the ground, whereas it’s usually in 5-6 feet of water.

“Once you get past the swim line, you have potential dangerous water depths where the lake can drop off. Unfortunately, people try to walk along natural bridges that are not [otherwise exposed]. A couple years ago, we had a couple of twins get pushed out into 40 feet of water. They were walking and holding hands and they all just fell off the edge.”

Last year, Baggett said, officials saw 22 lake-related deaths, an increase from the annual average of eight to 12.

“One fatality is too many in our minds,” Baggett said. “We’re getting prepared for the upcoming recreational season and with [low lake levels] we are especially stressing water safety. For boaters [and swimmers], we urge people to be extremely cautious during the day and night.

“Even though they may be familiar with the lake, the environment can change due to lower lake levels. We advise people to wear life jackets and never consume alcohol and operate a boat or swim.”

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