It’s expected to be a dry winter, but experts said it is too soon to tell what impact that will have on Lake Lanier’s summer levels.
James Hathorn, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief of water management for the Mobile District, said that while the corps is expecting a dry winter the lake level is looking in better shape than previous years.
“It’s too early to tell,” Hathorn said. “But we are in a better position than we were last year.”
As of noon on Friday, the lake level was at 1066 feet above sea level — four feet below the preferred winter level of 1070 feet. Hathorn said the level was lower at the end of 2016.
“If we compare it to last year … we were at [an] elevation 1060.29 on this date,” he said. “We’re about six feet higher than we were last year, so we’re in better position to possibly refill than we were last year if you look just at the lake level.”
Hathorn said winter and spring usually bring the heaviest rains, typically an opportunity for the lake to recover its water level before the summer. This year has already been dry, and Hathorn said the Southeast River Forecast Center in Peachtree City is expecting more of the same.
“November started off extremely dry. We got some rain in the latter part of November. December has been more normal,” Hathorn said. “[The center predicts] this will likely be a below-normal-rainfall winter for the months of January, February and March.”
The lake level rose about five inches in September after Tropical Storm Irma to about 1065.6 feet. Before that, in March, the lake fell to 1,061 feet.
The lake’s record low of 1,050.79 feet was set in December 2007.
With the lake level higher than last year and facing a dry winter, Hathorn said it remains to be seen how the level will be affected this summer.
“The determining factor is Mother Nature,” he said. “Mother Nature is going to determine whether we refill or not.”
Also affecting the lake level is water evaporation — which dips in winter before picking up in spring — and trees blooming, and using water, in the spring.
To limit the impact, Hathorn said the corps has been “conservatively” watching releases, though some still have to be made.
“There are releases we have to make. These are releases we can’t reduce,” Hathorn said. “The water supply and water quality are needs of metro-Atlanta that are met by the project, so we can’t reduce those releases without negatively impacting the region.”
Hathorn said the corps had limits in place for about a year which had led to the higher level than last year.
“I think the lake level we’ve gained may be five feet over the calendar year, and it’s because of that conservative operation was able to occur,” he said.
Lisa Hunter, chief of public affairs for the corps’ Mobile District, said she is watching the lake and looking for solutions to reach full pool.
“We try to be good stewards for the community,” she said. “This is something we take very seriously, and if we can make sure in any way that the lake is filled we will. As [Hathorn] put it, Mother Nature has a big play in if that happens.”