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North Georgia drought impacting Lake Lanier, feed supply, home sales
Lake Lanier's water levels continue to drop, expected to go further with no end to dry season
Sinking water levels on Lake Lanier have forced the closing of the boat ramp at Lanier Point Park. - photo by SCOTT ROGERS / Gainesville Times

Where there’s smoke, there’s a drought.

No doubt, more and more of Lake Lanier’s shoreline is showing, fall leaves crumple into near dust in your hands and wildfires are breaking out across North Georgia’s forests.

Lanier is hovering at just more than 1,060 feet above sea level, nearly 10 feet less than the summer full pool of 1,071 feet. The winter full pool of 1,070 feet takes effect Dec. 1.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which has shuttered boat ramps around Lanier, projects the level to reach 1,060.2 feet by Dec. 8.

Worse yet, the long-range forecast isn’t looking too good.

The area is looking at a “greater probability of above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation,” state climatologist Bill Murphey said last week. “(That’s) not good for the current drought conditions.”

Perhaps most evident is Lake Lanier, where “as water levels continue to drop, more and more hazards for boaters appear,” said Mark McKinnon, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division.

“Stumps, rocks and other things that used to be safely submerged are now above or very close to the surface,” he said.

The corps “does a good job of marking them, but they can’t necessarily see all of them, especially those under water.”

McKinnon said he encourages boaters to drive cautiously.

“Know the area you will be boating and where the shallow areas are and avoid those areas, if possible,” he said. “And, if you see a hazard that is not marked, please call the (corps) and report it.”

A concern for lake dwellers is the position of their docks.

“When the lake goes down 6 inches, it very likely could move out 3 feet if you’re in a shallow spot,” said Wilton Rooks, Lake Lanier Association vice president. “It really varies around the lake in terms of what the dock owners have to do.”

Another very visible sign of the drought was the thick haze — and strong smell of smoke — that descended on the area last week due to wildfires near the Tennessee line.

The largest of the Georgia blazes, the Rough Ridge fire in the Cohutta Wilderness area near Tennessee, had burned 6,400 acres as of Thursday, an official said.

“Due to extreme fire danger and the current drought situation, forest managers have made an important decision on behalf of public safety to issue a total fire ban” in the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forests, agency spokeswoman Judy Toppins said last week.

Hall County has been in extreme drought since mid-October, according to the National Drought Monitor.

The highest or worst level is “exceptional drought,” which now encompasses most of Northwest Georgia and, as of last week, touched the northwest boundaries of Hall.

And it’s hitting close to homes – and farms.

“I think our biggest concern has been the ability to feed cattle,” said Michael Wheeler, Hall County extension coordinator for the UGA Cooperative Extension office. “A lot of people got very little hay production this year.

“A lot of cattle have been sold across the region. People are just reducing herds to try to get to a sustainable level of whatever they can feed them over the wintertime.”

The drought is having a variety of effects across the area.

Another gauge of how bad drought conditions are the levels at Lanier. In December 2007, when the lake dropped to its historic low of 1,050.79 feet, it was like opening a time capsule from the 1950s, when Lanier was built. Old cars and boats emerged, as well as the top of concrete bleachers from the old Gainesville Speedway.

During the 2012-13 drought, Lanier dropped to 1,056.37 feet.

Mary Thompson of Lanier Appraisal Service in South Hall said the low levels are affecting the supply of homes for sale.

There is “not enough lake home inventory out there, as people appear to be waiting it out,” she said. “Historically, (a drought) has negatively impacted values.”

However, “we are headed into the typically slower season for lakefront sales, so those who can wait this drought out — assuming we get back to full pool by early spring — will certainly not feel the impact like those who have to sell now,” Thompson said.

Drought-busting rains would help refill Lanier, but there is another factor.

“People need to be aware of what they can do ... conserve water,” Rooks said. “The less we take out, the more water there will be.”