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An arid outlook
Drought's toll may have lasting effects on water use
Low Lake Lanier 1 es
Workers dredge Lake Lanier last week with a large crane as part of "Project 1020," an effort by the city of Cumming to extend its water intake pipe. Given the lake's uncertain water level, the city is planning for the future. - photo by Emily Saunders

Jan Vandevelde used to field many calls from residents concerned about how to conserve water without losing their gardens during the ongoing drought.

The past several months, though, the inquiries have slowed. And Vandevelde, master gardener coordinator for Forsyth County's extension service, has a theory why.

"I think people have kind of come to terms with it and have become accustomed to cutting back," she said. "I think it will just become a way of life."

A way of life, indeed.

The level of Lake Lanier has been hovering just over 1,051 feet above sea level for the past three weeks. Sometime between Dec. 12 and 19, it likely will fall below the historic low of 1,050.79, which was set on Dec. 26, 2007.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to reduce the amount of water released from the lake into the Chattahoochee River.

That reduction could add more than 11 billion gallons of stored water to Lanier, or about 1 foot to the water level, but only if the lake's watershed receives rain.

Meteorologists are predicting less than normal rainfall over the next three months, leaving little hope for breaking the Level 4 drought, which has lingered in 55 north Georgia counties since late September 2007.

If that's the case, Cumming and Forsyth County will have to continue making adjustments. Here's how folks have been coping.

Lake down, planning up
The city of Cumming's utilities department has taken a proactive approach to the falling lake level.

Construction on a new water intake pipe will be complete by July 1. The $14 million development, dubbed the "1020 project," will allow the city to withdraw water from the lake as low as 1,020 feet below sea level, said Utilities Director Jon Heard.

Currently, the city uses an intake pump system built in 1978 and one built in 1988 to supply its customers with water.

The 1978 pipe, which was deep enough to pull water from 1,055 feet, was bypassed in November 2007 through an emergency project funded with the city's reserves.

The emergency project placed two 16-inch pipes into the lake, allowing the city to draw water from as deep as 1,042 feet. A second emergency dredging project enabled those pipes to pump water from as deep as 1,030 feet, in case the lake drops below 1,043 feet.

"It's equipped with flexible pipes, so as the lake drops, the city can lower the pipe into the lake," Heard explained.

"It's more like a straw, where the existing 1978 intake pipe is at a fixed elevation."

Heard said the two upgraded pumps used in the 1978 station will be installed into the new pump station. At that point, the 1978 pump station will then be abandoned.

Though capable of meeting 100 percent of the city's water needs, the new pump station will still use the 1988 system for backup, and possibly a small percentage of water customers.

"The important aspect of this project is to provide redundancy to the city's water system," Heard said. "But we built this 1020 pump station to overcome any future drought that might be more severe than the one we've just been through and continue to meet our water needs through 2035."

Despite the new water infrastructure, Heard projected water revenue will be down about  $1.5 million from 2007.

According to Bill Thomas, Forsyth County's chief financial officer, the county's water and sewer revenue is down about 31 percent.

Revenues dropped from about $23.7 million in the first 10 months of 2007 to $16.3 million in the same time period of 2008.

Though the county's water supply comes from the city, Forsyth does serve its own water customers through an intergovernmental agreement.

"We do think [the lake's] going to drop lower than last year," said Tim Perkins, director of the county's water and sewer department. "But I don't think it will be able to drop to the level that we'd be in danger of not having water.

"I believe with the work the city of Cumming has completed and has in place, that ... we're going to be OK."

A drain on business

Business was booming for Daniel Jones, owner of Bolling Bridge Marine.

With Lake Lanier's popularity among boaters, business had been prosperous over the past three decades. Since the drought, however, Jones said business has dropped about 30 percent.

He has tried to combat the loss by focusing sales around other lakes.

"[But] when you lose Lake Lanier, you lose a big portion of your business," he said. "You go from a very viable business that's been here for 32 years, to almost nothing."

Jones said he will participate in the annual Atlanta Boat Show in January, which typically results in a sales spike, though it may not be enough.

"I really don't think it will help this year," he said. "You always sell boats there, but I don't think it's going to increase anything.

"You need water in the lake first. That's paramount. Water in the lake is the most important thing we need right now."

Businesses from retail stores to restaurants have been encouraged to cut water use, and water service providers were required by the state to trim water consumption by 15 percent.  

The restrictions have since eased, though Perkins said the state could tighten them again if the drought continues.

It's a conundrum for car washes, which typically see an increase in customers when there is no rain.

Ryan Colley, manager of Carnetts Car Wash, said business "has been up and down" since opening about four months ago and largely dependant on weather.

"About half the people who come in say they can't wash their cars at home because of the drought," Colley said.

The drought is a win-win for car washes. If it worsens, however, businesses could see tougher restrictions.

"I don't think there's a whole lot more you can do, unless you start rationing water somehow, or affecting businesses like car washes," he said.

"That might be the next step."

While outdoor residential watering was at first completely banned, the limits have since eased, allowing 25 minutes of watering twice a week.

Indoor water use isn't restricted, though tiered water structures offer residents lower rates for using under 6,000 gallons per month.

Future cloudy, but not with rain

Mike Griesinger, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said forecasts call for a below normal rainfall over the next three months.

"Frankly, normal precipitation or just below normal precipitation is good for what we've had the last couple of years," he said.

Beginning Tuesday, another wet period will descend on the area, Griesinger said.

"A lot can change between now and then, but it looks certainly like we could see 1 to 3 inches," he said. "It has a potential to be quite a soaker here somewhere in the Southeast, so there will be beneficial rains for somebody.

"Hopefully, it comes up to the north mountains and not central or south Georgia like the last good rainfall did."

Through December, a few small storm systems may pop up about once a week, said Griesinger, "giving us some shots at rain."

Beyond that, though, there is a better chance of below normal rainfall.

And a better chance that the drought and its effects may become a way of life.