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Lanier hits record low

BUFORD - The last time history was set on Lake Lanier, Jackie Joseph remembers very little attention. Atlanta was a much smaller city then, and the lake was more of a resort area than a suburban centerpiece with a bustling economy.

But Monday night - in a metro region with twice the population it had in 1981 - Lake Lanier reached an all-new low. As of press time Tuesday, the lake's level was listed at 1,052.50 feet above sea level - nearly 20 feet below its full level and the lowest it has been since the man-made lake began to fill in the 1950s.

While rain is forecasted for today, officials only expect the water to recede farther. This time, Joseph notes, people are paying attention.

"I see it every morning and every afternoon and every night," said Joseph, who lives along the shore in Buford. "I was really disappointed (in setting a new historic low) because there doesn't seem to be much relief in sight. ... We all are concerned. We don't know where the bottom actually is."

To deal with media flurry around the history-making event, public information specialist Lisa Coghlan traveled to Buford from Mobile, Ala., where lake operators at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a district office.

She thought the lake may have been the 1981 low of 1052.66 over the weekend, but some rain held the level fairly steady.

Instead, the level was eclipsed about 8:45 p.m. Monday.

While Coghlan said corps employees are concerned about the drought, since they live in the area being impacted, she said the lake still has 68 percent of its storage capacity.

"It's a multi-purpose reservoir. It's never going to be stable," she said. "The whole point is for it to go up and down for the use of downstream users. ... We're going to continue to pull (water) out of Lake Lanier."

Last week, though, the agency rolled out a plan to reduce the flows down the Chattahoochee River after negotiations between leaders in Georgia, Alabama and Florida. The states have battled for nearly 20 years over the flow of water.

On Monday, a judge approved the addition of the Lake Lanier Association as a party to one of the lawsuits. Joseph, who heads the organization, said she believes that will give her neighbors a better position to have their side heard.

The biggest need - all sides agree - is rain.

And Sean Ryan, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, said people will have some to be thankful for this week.

Chances for rain will begin this afternoon, although Ryan said he believes most of the precipitation will come tonight. The chance for rain will be 60 percent Thanksgiving morning and decrease in the afternoon.

All told, though, he believes the front will only produce between a quarter-inch and a half-inch of rain in north Georgia.

"That's not enough to make much of a difference," he said. "In order for Lake Lanier to stop dropping, it would take three to five inches in one day."

Gwinnett's drinking water is not in immediate danger, officials have said, but the governor has called on citizens to conserve. County officials will consider fines and surcharges for commercial water customers in the coming weeks.

Despite the situation, some people, including area resident Pamela Keene, are trying to make the best out of the circumstances.

Keene, who works in public relations, spent this summer planning parties to celebrate the lake's 50th anniversary, and she said the celebration is not over.

Even though many marinas have had to put boats into dry storage, camping, boating and fishing are still great pastimes, she said, especially as the leaves are turning this fall.

People do need to be careful as they sail, she added, but Keene herself took her boat out Tuesday and said she saw about a dozen sailboats in the water.

"It is hard to see the lake at this low a level, but it's encouraging to see everyone is working together on it," Keene said of negotiations among the states. "Even though the water levels are low, there are still opportunities to enjoy the lake."