Mike Leahy spent Thanksgiving weekend watching silt rush into the cove by his lakeside home. A turbidity curtain holding back the dirt had again come undone due to heavy rain.
Since a dam breach on May 19 that carried water and silt from Lake Alice into nearby Lake Lanier, Leahy and some 50 other residents of the affected cove had begun to lose hope that nothing would be done.
“Nobody has communicated anything to us ... the homeowners,” Leahy said.
But after a meeting earlier this month between officials with the city of Cumming and the Mashburn Family Trust, it appears a resolution is within reach.
Unless the state Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division blocks the agreement, both parties are confident the cove could be cleaned up by summer.
“I would hope we could be done well before that,” said Michael Carvalho, attorney for the family trust. “We’re going to do it right.”
Scott Morgan, director of the city’s planning and zoning department, said they will “hit the ground running immediately” after the EPD approves the agreement.
“It’s certainly doable now that both sides are getting it down to the final changes,” Morgan said. “There does have to be, however, a public hearing held somewhere in there to solicit public comment.”
That public comment portion was crucial for the family to move forward, Carvalho said.
“The city has agreed to put [the plan] up on their website and we invite the public to comment on it and will have a hearing 30 days after the plan is released, so people can come and give us constructive ideas they have,” Carvalho said.
For Leahy, the goal would be to have the dam rebuilt, or to have some structure in place to prevent more sediment from entering the cove.
“Until the stormwater velocity is addressed, it’s going to continue to drop any mud and sediment into the cove,” he said.
“A dam would slow that down and allow that sediment to filter out of the water, but there may be other methods I’m just not aware of.”
The family’s portion of the proposal does not call for a dam, Carvalho said, but sediment likely won’t be a problem again after the plan is enacted.
“The Mashburn family has engaged its experts to develop a weir structure that would effectively and significantly reduce the amount of sediment that would be moving downstream,” he said. “The city will remain responsible for cleaning out the cove and undertaking other actions, but those actous would essentially not be effective without the weir structure.”
A weir is a barrier that forms an obstruction smaller than most dams, pooling water behind it while also allowing it to flow steadily over the top.
Morgan said the city’s efforts to clean the sediment from the cove would likely be done through some form of dredging. The goal is to restore the cove to the amount of sediment that was there prior to May 19.
“A cross section sampling of sediment can tell them what was there and what was recently moved, that’s how they can determine a quantity that was there pre- and post-dam breach,” Morgan said.
If the state agrees, the weir structure would be the first step. Once the structure can prevent further runoff from Lake Alice, the city would be responsible for dredging and cleaning the sediment that washed into the Lanier cove on and since May 19.
Leahy and other homeowners aren’t the only people to take notice of the muddy water. The Georgia Water Coalition recently added Lake Alice to its “Dirty Dozen” list of the top 12 worst offenses to state waters.
Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said in a statement that the list is not about the most polluted bodies of water in the state.
"It’s a list of problems that exemplify the results of inadequate funding for environmental protections, lack of political will to enforce environmental laws and ultimately misguided water planning and spending priorities that flow from the very top of Georgia’s leadership,” he said.
According to the coalition’s report, Lake Alice had an aging dam that highlights the need for better safety measures. The dam was built in the 1930s, holding back runoff from undeveloped land. However, the city has grown tremendously in the ensuing decades.
“Those large commercial developments upstream, covering the land with asphalt and concrete, have resulted in larger-than-normal volumes of rainwater flowing into the lake and contributed to the failure of the Lake Alice Dam,” according to the report.
The report mirrors what Carvalho and the Mashburn family have contended since the beginning: There has been too much development in the area, and that has led to high levels of stormwater into Lake Alice.
“The cause of the dam failure was due to the city’s permitting of excessive amounts of stormwater going into the lake, resulting in the dam being overtopped,” Carvalho said.
But Morgan challenged that assertion.
“Every inch of development out there has infrastructure either above ground or under ground that was designed, installed and operating correctly to the state law of zero runoff and we have plans and hydrology studies that substantiate that information,” he said.
“So that’s simply incorrect that it was stormwater rushing unchecked from development in that watershed.”
The dispute appears to be headed to court, as Carvalho issued an anti-litem notice last month on behalf of the family.
The notice indicates intent to sue to recoup any costs associated with construction of the weir and any other expenses the family incurs resolving the issue, as well as other compensation.
Regardless of whether that suit is successful, Carvalho said the family will pay all costs up front.
“We cannot tolerate any further delays,” he said. “We’re going to come back recover the cost ... but the people that live on the cove deserve — everybody that is involved in this — deserves to get some resolution.”