By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great local journalism.
Water supply, drought among concerns for Lake Lanier
James Hathorn of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers speaks with visitors at the Gainesville Civic Center on Monday during the first public hearing on the proposed water management manual for the tri-state basin including Lake Lanier. - photo by Scott Rogers

GAINESVILLE — Tom Rasmussen of Gainesville came to the gathering concerned about the area’s future water supply, especially during droughts.

“We very quickly could end up in a very difficult position,” particularly as the population continues to climb, he said.

Rasmussen was one of many residents, water advocates and government officials streaming through an Army Corps of Engineers open house Monday on the agency’s draft operating plans for the tri-state basin that includes Lake Lanier.

And the takeaways were as mixed as the variety of people attending the public meeting at the Gainesville Civic Center.

Like Rasmussen, Clyde Morris, attorney for the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association, was concerned about water supply in the Lanier part of Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which also straddles Alabama and Florida.

“I understand that it’s going to take more water to satisfy the water supply requests that Georgia has,” Morris said. “But we need water, too. All the people who are in the Lake Lanier Association drink water and use it for everything that everybody else does.

“I think it’s inescapable that Lake Lanier’s levels are going to go down, especially when you take in the water supply requests.”

Morris said he is concerned a future drought could take an even harder toll on Lanier than during the 2007-09 drought, when the lake drained to a historic low water level of 1,050.79 feet above sea level. The lake’s full pool is 1,071 feet in the summer and 1,070 feet in winter.

That drought spurred Georgia lawmakers to pass the Water Stewardship Act during the 2010 legislative session, requiring conservation measures by local governments, water systems and state agencies.

In August, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District Governing Board issued a long-range water use forecast that showed demand for the area is projected to be 25 percent less than what was projected in 2009.

The forecast incorporated economic and population projections, as well as water utility billing data to estimate future residential and nonresidential water needs.

Rasmussen said he believes that “with climate change, you have to assume we’re going to have another drought ... and we really need to plan ahead of time.”

Pat Robbins, spokesman for the corps’ Mobile, Ala., District, said the proposed documents include “drought action plans” for each of the basin’s reservoirs.

Among the items the plans consider are “based on the drainage areas of each lake, where do you start taking the water from first ... and where do you preserve water because you don’t know how long the drought’s going to last.

“And you still have species downstream that you have to make releases for.”

The manual overall could be a thorny subject, especially as Georgia, Florida and Alabama have been locked in a two-decade “water war” over the sharing of water in the basin.

Georgia seemed to be getting an upper hand in the legal wrangling until last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a lawsuit from Florida that challenges Georgia’s “overconsumption” of water in the basin.

Florida alleges that such a trend has harmed the state economically, especially with the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay. Georgia has denied Florida’s allegations.

One key part of the documents is they call for gross withdrawals of 225 million gallons per day upstream of Buford Dam, including 40 million gallons from the proposed Glades Reservoir in northern Hall County.

Lisa Parker, a corps spokeswoman, has said that “even though the permit for the proposed project has not been completed, Glades Reservoir has been considered together with other water supply measures to address Georgia’s 2013 request (concerning lake withdrawals).”

The corps has scheduled four other open houses, with the last one set for Nov. 9 in Eastpoint, Fla.

The current manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin was completed in 1958, shortly after Lanier was formed.

The revision is intended to “improve operations for authorized purposes to reflect changed conditions since the manuals were last developed,” states a corps website dedicated to the manual update.

Final documents are slated to be completed and filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in fall 2016. The Water Control Manual is scheduled to be approved by spring 2017.