Getting their feet wet

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

ON A BARGE ON LAKE LANIER -- Jody Iguess slipped into his wet suit and checked his mask, preparing for a dive into Lake Lanier.

While others were out on the lake that April day enjoying the water and the afternoon sun, Iguess and a half-dozen divers were there for more than a day of snorkeling.

They are a crew of commercial divers, plunging more than 100 feet below the lake's surface, where they can't even see the fish, much less enjoy the view.

Instead, once they are at the lake's bottom, they maneuver a 6-foot-tall pipe into place, turn barbell-size bolts and stack concrete blocks.

In the next week or so, the job will be done, allowing Gwinnett County to discharge up to 40 million gallons of wastewater into the lake.

The project has been under construction for two years and in the planning stages -- not to mention court -- for a decade.

By the end of the month, the valve will be turned, flowing treated wastewater 7.2 miles from the F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center into the lake, about 6,500 feet from shore.

While Gwinnett and other governments have discharged their treated wastewater into the Chattahoochee River for decades, this will be the first discharge into the lake, known for 50 years as a fishing and tourist spot for Atlanta as well as the leading source of drinking water.

Few know the lake better than Iguess and the Oscar Renda Contracting crew that have learned its depths over the past months, and few will ever see the pipe that will bring in water -- a much-coveted commodity after the recent drought caused some to wonder if the lake would ever be full again.

Even within the lake, Iguess keeps a hose of running water in his suit, pumping warm liquid to ward off the hypothermia that could set in with temperatures anywhere from 38 to 52 degrees.

"You can't feel your fingers after a while," Iguess said of the job, where dexterity is important to get the pipe and its fittings into place.

The work is painstaking, with only one diver allowed below at a time, while the others either monitor him on a radio and camera, check his lines or lower equipment.

Then, to avoid the bends, that diver must rush into a decompression unit -- stripping naked in a quick jaunt on the barge -- to allow his body to adjust for half an hour before the next diver can begin.

While one section of pipe could be accomplished in a day on dry land, under water it can take days, making the construction longer and more expensive.

But the work is all in the name of the environment, as court officials hope to fulfill a 10-year-old promise to return water to Lake Lanier -- the source of the county's drinking water and a valuable resource so precious it has been the bone of contention among states for decades.

A decade ago, the thought of putting treated wastewater into the lake was devastating to area homeowners.

Despite assurances from scientists and a negotiated agreement with the county to stringently purify the water, lake side resident Jackie Joseph said she can't help but worry a little as the time to open the valve arrives.

"It should be minimal, if any, impact," Joseph said, citing studies from a long court battle between the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the Lake Lanier Association, where she serves as president, and other environmentalists.

"This is all science. We don't have reality yet," she added. "Everything on paper looks good, but we don't really know."

County officials are confident in the water's quality, which is better than the water that enters the lake from northern rivers, they say.

"It's actually a good thing to do," Chairman Charles Bannister said, adding that lawyers are trying to make the case that the expensive project shows that Gwinnett and Georgia are committed to sustaining the lake as part of the water wars court case, where a judge has said the state may lose its main drinking water supply.

Gwinnett alone pumps 65 to 70 million gallons a day on average for drinking water for its residents. The peak consumption has gone down from a high of 142 million gallons at the turn of the century to 103 million gallons one day last summer.

Adding up to 40 million gallons back will help make up the impact, officials argue, and it could raise the lake's level by about a foot.

"It's a sustainable thing for our environment," Bannister said. "It is putting our water back in the lake."

With the final piece of pipe being fitted into place, a decade of work will be complete, and Joseph will learn if the scientists were right.

The Buford woman said she saw little signs of the construction, officials say people won't notice the discharge 115 feet below the lake's surface. They won't even see bubbles.

The only change, they say, will be a fuller lake and -- they hope -- a better position in the water wars.

"The world is facing water problems, and here we are light years ahead," county spokesman Joe Sorenson said. "This goes a long way to putting in the water we take out, and putting it in cleaner than the water we take out."