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Officials wade into cove quandary
Dam collapse sent mud into Lake Lanier
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Forsyth County News

More than 10 days after a privately owned dam collapsed, residents along a mud-filled Lake Lanier cove are as frustrated with the response from state and local agencies as they are with the murky water.

The situation began May 19, when the earthen dam broke after nearly 7 inches of rain fell, sending torrents of water from Lake Alice across Sanders Road into Lanier. The result is dense, muddy mess that’s been an eyesore for lake residents and a possible environmental threat.

“There has been a non-stop stream of silt and other pollutants into Lake Lanier,” said Mike Leahy, who can see the water from the deck of his home. “However, nothing has been done to abate the flow.”

The first meeting between responding agencies didn’t happen until Wednesday afternoon, something the state Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division concedes likely should have happened sooner.

“I’ll be frank, we just kind of dropped the ball. We should have been on it quicker,” said Bert Langley, EPD district coordinator. “We have recognized in EPD that some of our emergency actions are not being handled as appropriately as they should. And because of that, we’ve just recently taken the steps to completely redo our emergency response team and put it back up.

“Unfortunately, that had not occurred and there were just too many fumbles along the way and we just now finally got into gear with it.”

Langley also noted that his division wasn’t notified about the incident until over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, nearly a full week after it occurred.

Prior to that, the governments of Cumming and Forsyth County, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been exchanging phone calls trying to arrange a meeting.

“Nobody’s got an answer at this time that I’m aware of,” said City Manager Gerald Blackburn. “We have had phone calls from the county and from the [corps] and we’ve also communicated with the [corps] and with the county.

“Just as soon as everybody can get together, somebody will be speaking as one voice.”

That one voice likely will be that of the EPD, said Tim Rainey, corps spokesman.

“From what I understand, they’re going to be the main party in this,” Rainey said. “We’re trying to figure out the way forward.”

Rainey, an EPD representative and a city official were scheduled to tour the damaged cove Wednesday to determine a course of action.

Langley said the owners of the dam were also notified of the meeting, as they likely will share responsibility with the city.

The dam does not necessarily need to be rebuilt, he said, however some steps must be taken to prevent further runoff.

The owners include Catherine Amos and other members of the Mashburn family. They own much of the Lake Alice property, including the dam, which Amos has previously said dates to the 1930s.

She could not be reached for comment Tuesday. However, last week she described the breach as “an act of God. I think it’s just so much rain all at once that it just couldn’t hold it, unfortunately.”

While Cumming owns a large portion of Lake Alice, the city property comes to a point at the dam.

“I think the two parties are jointly responsible and that’s the way we would pursue it,” Langley said. “It’s a funny place, regulatory-wise.”

The lake sits between Market Place Boulevard Extension, across from Cumming Town Center, and Sanders Road. The retail area was developed about six years ago.

As the water flowed from Lake Alice toward Lanier, it damaged a culvert that runs under Sanders, as well as the shoulders of the county-maintained road. Those have since been repaired.

Last week, Rainey said the dirt in the water would require dredging equipment. The project likely would be best timed for when Lanier’s level isn’t nearly so high.

“It will be a huge expense, most likely,” he said.

Rainey was not sure whether silt has completely stopped flowing into the lake, but the area impacted is minor in terms of Lanier overall.

“In the grand scheme of things, as far as the sediment getting in there and our storage capacity, it’s insignificant, it’s miniscule,” he said. “The adjacent residents in that area, of course, may be impacted by slightly shallower levels.”

Jim Hixon is another one of those residents. He said the “cove has been muddy for days from all the silt and dirt that washed into it.”

“It’s settling in now,” he said, estimating as much as 50 tons of dirt washed into Lanier after the dam burst.

Joana Cloud, Lake Lanier Association president, has heard from many people living along the lake cove. Like them, she’s still waiting on the government agencies.

While the association is known for its organized lake cleanups, she noted its members “don’t have equipment to dredge.”

“Taking dirt out of Lake Lanier is different than taking trash out of Lake Lanier,” she said.

The meeting Wednesday afternoon was a chance for all parties to assess the damage and plot the next step, Langley said. 

“They’re going to have to come up with an understanding between them as to who’s responsible for what,” Langley said. “The concept is let’s find out what’s happened and let’s develop a plan for where we go from here.”