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Sinking houseboats removal from Lake Lanier has become struggle

FLOWERY BRANCH — A Lake Lanier group’s crusade to rid the lake of abandoned docks and vessels has hit some choppy waters as it works to dispose of a sinking houseboat that belonged to a late Flowery Branch man.

The craft has sat on the shoreline near Sunrise Cove Marina in western Hall County since Michael Gilmer, 61, of Flowery Branch was found dead near it Sept. 23, said Joanna Cloud, executive director of Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association.

The boat started sinking and today, “the vessel is almost entirely underwater,” she said. “There is gasoline, oil, batteries, a propane tank, as well as a lot of debris on this vessel now leaching or floating into the water.”

Such careful observations are typical for Cloud, a Forsyth County resident who passionately documents other such occurrences around the 38,000-acre lake.

This case is somewhat different than others, she said.

“It is one thing for a vessel to sink without us noticing it and [at some point] we stumble across it,” Cloud said. “This boat has actively sunk while we stood by and watched. What would have been a couple-hundred-dollars issue is now a multi-thousand-dollar issue.

“And no matter how you slice it, this is going to have to come out of taxpayer pockets. I just don’t know which entity is going to pay for it.”

In some cases, Cloud’s group is able to identify owners and press them for cleanup. In other cases, the owner can’t be found and boat registration numbers aren’t available.

“My understanding is that Mr. Gilmer died without a will,” she said. “He was divorced and apparently estranged from his next-of-kin.”

Among those Cloud has spoken to include the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The upshot of it is that I can’t find anyone that seems able to answer the question of what is the protocol in this situation and who has jurisdiction,” Cloud said.

DNR spokesman Kevin Chambers said of the issue: “It’s a federal matter, since the boat was abandoned on Corps of Engineers property.”

The Environmental Protection Agency “will normally address any immediate environmental threat, and disposing of the boat falls under corps regulations,” he said.

“It’s the corps’ desire and my personal desire to get these things off the lake,” said Nick Baggett, corps natural resources manager. “The problem is the money. We have no appropriated funding to spend on removing these vessels.”

In the Gilmer case, “we’re trying to find out who the legal owner is,” Baggett said. “That’s one of the first things we try to do — to hold [owners] responsible for removing the vessel.”

He said rangers have checked out the area where the boat sunk.

“There was no sheen on the water and there was no loose trash floating around the vessel,” Baggett said. “My rangers didn’t see any contaminants at the time.”

Still, he would like to see the vessel removed, but money is the issue. He estimates the expense at $7,000 to $10,000, maybe more.

“We have limitations on what we can do, and we really need, if possible, to develop a partnership [with others] to try to find ways to get these things removed from the lake.”

For Cloud, there’s a sense of urgency about the matter, as Lanier serves as the home for thousands and a recreational magnet for millions each year.

“These vessels and docks are a blight on our community,” she has said. “They affect water quality — the boats, especially — as they deteriorate … And this is our reservoir, our drinking water for 4 million-plus people.”