Lake Lanier: How low will it go?
Lanier nears record low with no improvement expected

LAWRENCEVILLE - Despite the nearly two inches of rain received this past weekend, Lake Lanier's pool level is still nearly 20 feet below full.

And with the clock ticking on the remainder of 2008, the metro area is going to need a lot of rain this month to reach an average amount of rainfall for the year.

"The rainfall deficit for the year is pretty big," said Sean Ryan, a forecaster for the National Weather Service. "But we (metro Atlantans) were worse off in 2007 and definitely had a larger deficit at the same time last year."

According to data provided by the National Weather Service Dec. 1, rainfall at Harsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport this year is so far 9.34 inches less than the historical average.

Because of this, much of north Georgia - including Gwinnett County - continues to experience exceptional and extreme drought conditions.

Ryan also said that the weather forecast for the coming winter months calls for a warmer and drier season than normal. He added that there isn't a huge probability to support that forecast though.

"But as far as the drought goes, we're not predicting much improvement unfortunately," he said.

The state's climatologist, David Stooksbury, had similar sentiments when he released his monthly drought report Nov. 13.

"Drought conditions continue to grow harsher across north Georgia," Stooksbury said. "Water levels in reservoirs and streams are at or near record lows across most of the region, and groundwater levels are also low."

He added that while the rain received this past weekend helped, it was only temporary relief. And he agreed with the National Weather Service predictions for the coming winter months.

"There is no strong indication that the winter will be abnormally wet or dry, and there is also no strong indication that the winter will be abnormally warm or cool," he said. "The trend over the past 15 years, however, has been for dry winters."

This doesn't bode well for Lake Lanier refilling.

"Even with normal seasonal rains, it's doubtful that Lanier, Hartwell, Russell or Clarks Hill lakes will fully recover this winter," Stooksbury said.

Lake Lanier's all time record low was reached Dec. 26 when its water level was measured at 20.21 feet below full. At its last official reading recorded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Dec. 2, the lake was 19.82 feet below full.

Last year, the Lake Lanier Association predicted that during continued droughts, Lake Lanier would experience lower lows each year under the Corps of Engineers' revised interim operating plan, said Wilton Rooks, the group's vice president of technical operations. Rooks said this results from the shift in the Corps of Engineers' original water control plan that had a target of replenishing the reservoirs by June 1 of each year to a policy based on achieving required discharges from Woodruff Dam into the Apalachicola River.

"The Corps is operating under restraints," Rooks said. "It's a much different basin than it was 50 years ago."

He said that while conservation efforts by both businesses and consumers have helped in creating 15 to 20 percent water use drops, conservation alone will not result in significantly higher lake levels.

"A detail study of the entire Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint water basin is needed to identify ways to require less water from Lake Lanier for municipal, industrial and agricultural users downstream of Lake Lanier," Rooks said. "Downstream users need to return more of the water they take out to the Chattahoochee River. This will result in less demand for water from Lake Lanier."

Because the amount of water Lanier holds continues to fall, a new advocacy group has formed to stop excessive water releases from Lanier's Buford Dam. The group calls itself the 1071 Coalition since 1071 is considered a full pool level in Lake Lanier. Rooks serves as a secretary for the group, and it's composed of residents, civic groups, business and other entities dedicated to maintaining water levels in the lake that sustain water supply, recreation and economic prosperity. The group will hold a kickoff meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Legacy Lodge and Conference Center at Lake Lanier Islands Resort - "to get people fired up," a spokeswoman for the group said.

Rooks said the only way a comprehensive study of the ACF basin will get completed is with political will.

"The politicians need to get behind it and make it happen," he said. "Until that is done, everyone is just grabbing straws."

And with Georgia's drought ongoing, Lake Lanier will only continue to get lower.