Thinking ahead
Grand jury suggests stopping development if drought worsens

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett officials should consider halting development if Georgia's drought worsens, members of the grand jury suggested last week.

In presentments published at the end of the grand jury term, members encouraged officials to stress conservation and education at a time when Lake Lanier, north Georgia's largest water source, is historically low.

"That's good. We'll do whatever we have to do to ensure that those that live in the county today will continue to have water as we have access to it," Chairman Charles Bannister said of the suggestion. "If it's necessary to make sure we have water, we'll do everything we need to do and can do legally, if it gets that bad."

Citizens picked for the grand jury spoke to government officials and toured the county's F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center to investigate the water problems in the news.

County Administrator Jock Connell pointed out that the housing market has caused a natural slowdown in development, but he said the recommendations will be studied.

"Anytime the grand jury makes a recommendation, I think we give it considerable weight," Connell said. "Let's face it we're in a drought that many would say is unprecedented. ... We've always got to keep it in the back of our minds."

In addition to the conservation and education measures, the members encouraged the construction of cisterns to catch rainwater.

"Water planning and usage operations are complex, particularly so for metropolitan Atlanta including Gwinnett County," the presentments read. "The complexity of planning is complicated by the fact that Lake Lanier is supplied by a very small watershed and its outlet is controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. Also, high-yield wells are not considered practical due to underlying rock formations."

Jim Scarbrough, Gwinnett's executive technical assistant in matters involving the federal water wars, said he did not believe the cisterns or a moratorium on water hook-ups is necessary at this stage in the drought. But he said he does not expect Lake Lanier to refill before next summer.

"The worrisome part is looking at going into June and July (historically dry months), with the lake where it is now, when normally it would be nearly full," in late winter, Scarbrough said. "I don't see us mandating that just yet. I would wait and see what happens this summer and fall."

While Scarbrough said the decision on development would be left to politicians, he said there are several questions about Gwinnett's share of water resources that won't be answered until the Corps of Engineers completes a new manual on its operations of the lake, which could take three years.

In the meantime, Scarbrough said local residents have done a good job with water conservation measures, which includes the current ban on outdoor watering.

As of Sunday, Lanier's water level was 1,053.40 feet above sea level, nearly 18 feet below its full level.