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Still sailing: Lanier business owners gear up for Fourth

BUFORD - At Aqua Sports Adventure, Janis Helmka is taking July 4 reservations from Lake Lanier enthusiasts who'll rent her ski boats for up to $400 a day.

At Tow Boat U.S.A., Capt. Robert Estrada plans on rescuing more boaters who run out of gas than run aground on a newly emerged sandbar.

At Lord Nelson Charters, Capt. Ricki Lee Hagen is miffed that he is fielding calls about the lake "drying up."

Heading into one of the busiest weekends on Lake Lanier, some businesses are confused and frustrated by all the attention water levels have received, especially since the levels - about 5 feet below full pool - were at least twice as low in recent years.

Any negative publicity surrounding the 38,000-acre reservoir is particularly unwelcome July Fourth weekend, which some water equipment and boat rental businesses count on for 10 to 15 percent of their annual sales.

"Everybody gets freaked out about 51⁄2 feet, but that's nothing compared to the drought a few years ago" said Helmka, who expects at least 1,500 customers over the four-day holiday weekend.

Much of public perception about the lake stems from the dry weather.

Despite recent heavy rains, metro Atlanta remains caught in a state-declared mild to moderate drought, prompting local watering restrictions.

To make matters worse, a recent goof by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers caused the unintentional release of billions of gallons of water from Lake Lanier. The Corps discovered a faulty gauge was to blame.

The snafu got plenty of media coverage.

Capt. Hagen said when people see pictures of lake docks left high and dry they get an exaggerated impression of how low the water is.

"I had a call from someone asking if we were going to cancel our sailing camp," Hagen said. "I think people who don't know the lake read the news reports or see it on TV and get the idea this is just one big mud flat."

Historically, the lake isn't that low. In 2001, the lake dropped nearly 16 feet below full pool, according to the Corps.

While boaters and swimmers still need to take caution this weekend, underwater hazards such as rocks and trees have not been a problem, said Chief Park Ranger Michael Lapina. Not one public boat ramp is closed.

"Many think the lake is at record low levels, when really it's not," he said.

Meanwhile, the lake has enjoyed one of its busiest springs, with almost 771,000 people visiting in April.

At Aqua Sports Adventure, Helmka is expecting to make at least 15 percent of her annual sales this weekend. In fact, nearly $3 gasoline has a better chance of affecting business than low water.

"People tend to get a little more conservative with the boat usage when prices get that high," Helmka said.