LAWRENCEVILLE - When boating enthusiasts head back to the lake this weekend, they'll find things in much better shape than the last couple of years.
The wet and rainy year Georgia is experiencing means most of the state is now drought-free, the state's climatologist Dr. David Stooksbury announced earlier this month.
But he added there are two areas still not entirely out of the clear: the Lake Lanier and Lake Hartwell basins. But their status also appears to be improving because the lakes are filling up, and in relatively great shape for the traditional start to the summer boating season - Memorial Day weekend.
"The basins were previously in moderate drought, and thanks to generous rains have improved to mild drought," Stooksbury said in his last statement on drought. "The mild drought classification is based on the still low levels of the lake."
But Lanier is greatly different than it was a year ago, when it measured 1,057.76 feet above sea level. On Thursday, the most recent elevation data available on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Web site, the lake level measured at 1,065.49 feet, nearly eight feet higher. With a full lake measuring 1,071 feet, Lanier now is less than six feet below full pool. The last time Lanier was full was Sept. 6, 2005.
People who use the lake frequently for business purposes say it's pretty amazing how much a difference seven or eight feet makes.
"Any increase in the lake level is good for local business," said fishing guide Shane Watson, a 20-year veteran whose business has seven boats on Lanier. "But the low levels never hurt us too bad. The cold weather hurts us more. But the fishing guide business is good right now. The fish are biting and it's wide open, just like it should be."
A person connected with the boating industry also had positive things to say about the rising lake levels.
"Lanier being fuller makes a huge difference," said Brent Danneman, the general manager of the Port Royale Marina. "I bet there are quadruple the number of ramps open that were last year. And with gas prices down, buying a boat is good right now. It's actually probably the best I've seen in 30 years."
The number of ramps open is much different than it was a year ago, said Tim Rainey, the operations project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Lanier.
Rainey said a year ago when Lanier hovered around 1,057 feet, only 24 lanes were available and only 15 of the lake's 51 areas were open to boaters.
When the lake hit 1,064.5 feet above sea level on May 6, 99 lanes were available and 49 areas were open.
"All Corps-of-Engineers-operated boat ramps are open," Rainey said. "Everything is available except Lanier Point and River Forks, which are both run by Hall County. But everything else has an available ramp."
Rainey said ramps consist of having one to four lanes.
He also said the Corps is developing a plan that would dictate what the process will be if and when they begin accepting new applications again for new Shoreline Use Permit/License requests. The Corps announced April 24 that the moratorium on such application requests would continue.
"The moratorium will continue until the lake level is above the 1,064 level for 30 consecutive days," Rainey said. "At that point if a five-week forecast shows stable or rising conditions, we'd then begin the process of taking applications."
May 3 was the first day of the 30 needed to begin triggering that process.
Whether Mother Nature cooperates and allows that to occur remains to be seen. But the fishing expert Watson put the scenario in simpler terms.
"This winter wasn't nearly as bad as it was two years ago," he said. "If the boats are in the water, that's a good thing."