LAKE LANIER - The way Colin Crawford sees it, metropolitan Atlanta has few natural advantages.
"It's not on a coast, it's not on a bay. It's along a river," he said. "Luckily, it's historically a transportation hub, and that's made possible by the construction of Lake Lanier."
The lake is more than a good place to fish, the Georgia State University professor said. In fact, its $5.5 billion annual impact on the region covers everything from boats to the bait that's on them and plenty in between.
"It's sunglasses, tanning oil, a six-pack of Diet Coke," Lake Lanier Operations Project Manager Jonathan Davis said. "It adds up to $5.5 billion really quickly. ... Whether it's a tent, a boat or a $280,000 motor home, there's more dollars behind the dollars. There's a next layer because the lake's here."
Each year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers takes in $1.3 million in user fees on Lake Lanier, Davis said. That money goes to the U.S. Treasury Department but is indicative of the economic impact the lake has on the region.
When the lake is at its full pool level, Lazy Days Marina vice president Bill Sommerfield said, it generates a lot of business.
Sommerfield is the president of the Marine Trade Association, a group that in 2003 commissioned the study that showed the lake's $5.5 billion impact.
He said when the lake is low, as it is now - Lake Lanier is more than 12 feet below its full pool level - the real estate market is flat. Marinas have to pull boats out of the water and many of the more than 10,000 private boat docks on the lake are inaccessible.
The drought also affects fishing tournaments, restaurants and insurance companies that do business around the lake. In 2001, another drought year, the phone book lost $483,000 in ads because companies weren't willing to spend money when the lake was low.
Crawford, an associate professor of law and co-director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth at Georgia State, said Lake Lanier's impact cannot be overstated.
"It's considerable," he said. "I think it's safe to say you wouldn't see the growth in Gwinnett and Hall and Forsyth counties (without it). Gwinnett is the second-most populous county in Georgia. That's inconceivable without Lake Lanier. It helped land values there. Water makes it possible."
David Word, a senior planner with the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, said the lake has enough water to provide for residents in the region through 2030's projected population. Lake Lanier is responsible for 70 percent of the region's drinking water, a detail that has allowed metropolitan Atlanta to sustain its rapid growth.
But Word said people should be conserving water because Atlanta does not have another source. It's illegal to bring more water in from outside the region.
"The water we have is the water we have to figure out how to live with," Word said. "We can handle population projections. We do not have a plan that says after a certain date, no more babies."
Word said he does not see Lake Lanier running out of water, but said industry would be curtailed if it did.
While experts were hesitant to speculate about what the region would look like today if Lake Lanier had not been constructed 50 years ago, many said metro Atlanta's growth would have been markedly different.
"I probably wouldn't be here talking to you," Sommerfield said. "The lake brought a lot of people in. If there was no lake, I don't know what the industry would be, but I know a lot wouldn't be here."
Kit Dunlap, the president of the Greater Hall County Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District, said she thinks Atlanta would still be a successful city without Lake Lanier - as long as something else existed in its place.
"Look at all major cities, successful cities," she said. "Look at the body of water they're on. There's no dollars that can measure this. It would shorten our water supply, prevent our future growth. We'd have to do something else."