'Somebody's watching every day'
Alabama man in charge of Lanier discharges

Memphis Vaughan lives more than 400 miles from Lake Sidney Lanier, but its future is in his hands.

The water management chief from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Mobile office leads a team of engineers and experts who decide how much water will be released from Buford Dam and flow from the north Georgia mountains all the way to Florida.

It's a job that is often overlooked, but Vaughan and his team have been under immense scrutiny since this summer, as a severe drought has meant Lanier has reached its lowest level since it was filled 50 years ago.

The hydraulic engineer and his staff report to work every morning, making their computations and predictions, balancing federal requirements and political pressures to try to account for the needs of three states.

While political speeches in Georgia blaming Lanier's low levels on corps mismanagement are often met with thunderous applause, especially since officials discovered a faulty gauge last summer, Vaughan said Atlantans aren't seeing the big picture, the entire region suffering from drought.

"We know we have to meet the metro Atlanta water needs. ... It's a tough job trying to balance all these things out," Vaughan said. "Somebody's watching it every day."

Decision time

About the time the first fishermen drop their lines into Lake Lanier, the first engineer or hydrologist arrives at the Corps' Mobile office.

Staffers trade off each week for the early shift, which begins about 6:30 a.m., Vaughan said.

When the computers come to life, they begin gathering reports from dozens of sources - from stream, river and lake gauges, from the National Weather Service, from the U.S. Geological Survey. Charts and graphs, numbers and predictions are culled and weighted, as the rest of the staff arrives and models are prepared to show the possible outcomes of each decision.

The staff works on a four- to-five-week projection on lake levels for the entire Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

Vaughan said the projections are made assuming there will be no rainfall during the time period, so the numbers change each time a storm passes through.

Before computers began pumping in instantaneous numbers, staffers would have to call dozens of people to be able to complete a single report.

Now, Vaughan said, "you can get information quick, and they demand it quicker."

There are still more statistics that come in monthly from water utilities and weekly withdrawal information comes from the Atlanta Regional Commission. The Corps does not get information on wastewater returned to rivers and lakes, but Vaughan said he foresees the monthly and weekly updates becoming more instantaneous once the water wars are resolved.

The water management division has a meeting every Wednesday with representatives from all the sectors involved with water - recreation, hydropower, navigation, environmental and public affairs officials.

Lately, Vaughan said, there have been more specialized meetings to talk about the impacts on industries, on recreation, on water supply. The Corps has also begun a weekly conference call, so the discussion spreads from the Mobile conference room to people across the region.

"There's a heightened sense of awareness about things," he said. "When the resources start to be limited, even a small amount of water is critical. ... We have to focus on everything and make sure we are being the best stewards of the water as possible."

Political figures, he said, give input, but they are not in the room making decisions.

'The hand we were dealt'

In Vaughan's 25 years in water management, he's seen his fair share of droughts, including some devastating ones in the 1980s.

"Each drought is different," he said. "The basins have changed with the amount of people moving into metro Atlanta."

Weather patterns - El Nino and La Nina - have an impact.

But because he is obligated to meet so many objectives - water supply, economic needs, environmental sustainability - water management is a constant balancing act.

Federal mandates come into play often, but the standard for flows in Florida's Apalachicola Bay have recently been lowered, making the need for withdrawals in Georgia less dramatic.

"Since we are in a drought, your focus is the minimum amount of flow you need to release," Vaughan said. "But what happens at the lower end of the system impacts the upper need. We are trying to meet the needs of the entire system."

The ACF system has southern storage pools at West Point Lake and Walter F. George Lake, which the Corps at times had to drain to even a lower level than Lanier, but managing those lakes is easier, Vaughan said, since they can be filled by increasing the flow from Lanier.

The geography for Lanier, though, makes the management difficult.

"You've got a deep lake without a lot of drainage area," he said. "The only way you can get water into Buford is for it to rain, that's why it's critical to maintain to the levels in Lanier. It gives us some limitations.

"It's the key to the whole system, but it has a small drainage system so it takes a lot to refill it," Vaughan said. "That's the hand we were dealt when these lakes were built."

Once Vaughan and his staff makes a decision about releases, the information is given to the South Eastern Power Association, which sells electricity generated at federal dams. That association actually sets the release times based on peak demand for electricity.

The preliminary plans are made a week in advance but confirmed the day prior, and information is given to the public through a Web site and an automated phone line. The information is important since river flow can quickly rise and fishermen and others have been known to occasionally become caught in the surge. For the same reason, sirens are sounded prior to each release.

Each release, these days, is considered with even more scrutiny, since politicians are waging a more public battle than the water wars that have stalled changes for a decade.

"This is probably the worst I've seen," Vaughan said of the drought. It's getting pretty grim, but we're getting to the time where it's supposed to start raining again."

Hope for rain

In late fall, most of the lakes in the system were in Zone 4, which means there was not enough water to meet all of the needs. Rains pushed West Point and Walter F. George to safer levels, but Lanier was still a source of worry, even eclipsing the lowest levels it had held since it was built in the 1950s.

This is the time of year when lakes would be held to a lower level, Vaughan said, so they would have enough capacity to capture the heavy winter rains.

But hydrologists believe it will take a lot more than a rainy winter to bring Lanier back up to its peak.

For now, Vaughan is trying to balance the needs downstream to keep Lanier as full as possible.

If the lake level drops below 1,035 feet above sea level, the water won't be able to move through the turbines to produce power at Buford Dam. There is a sluice at the bottom of the dam, which can be opened. Vaughan said the oxygen-rich water would likely help the downstream hatchery, but the situation would not be ideal, especially with business and recreation demands already suffering north of Atlanta.

Vaughan knows people want the water battle to swing in their favor, but his job isn't to question the policies but to take all the factors, all the data and projections and forecasts, do the math and balance the impacts as best as he can between all involved.

But after a career filled with droughts, Vaughan said he's optimistic.

"I expect one day it'll rain like normal again; I can't say when," he said.

But one thing is certain, every morning someone will arrive early the Mobile office to capture the data, to start the analysis and get ready for the daily decision of how much water to release from Lake Lanier.