Raising maximum level 2 feet would add 26 billion gallons of water, advocates say

Jeff Gill, Gainesville Times

A Gainesville-based advocacy group isn’t backing off its push for a fuller Lake Lanier, an issue it first raised in 2007.

“I think at the time there just wasn’t enough public demand about what was going on with Lake Lanier,” Lake Lanier Association executive director Joanna Cloud said Tuesday. “It was prior to the big drought, and we didn’t have the attention focused on it, not only on the drought, but water issues in general.”

In 2011, “I think public attitudes have changed drastically on those types of issues,” she added.

She believes this and next year are going to be “absolutely critical years for … the state of Georgia in terms of getting some resolution on the water issues.”

An additional 2 feet of water storage, increasing full pool to 1,073 feet above sea level from 1,071 feet, would add some 26 billion gallons of water to Lanier, the association said in a news release last week.

“That volume of additional water could exceed the amount that would be stored in all the (state’s) proposed reservoirs combined, at a small fraction of the cost,” the group said. “The question is whether Georgia would legally be allowed to use it for water supply.”

Georgia and neighboring Florida and Alabama have debated water usage issues for some two decades.

In July 2009, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Lake Lanier is not an authorized source of drinking water.

He gave Georgia three years to resolve the situation with its neighbors or face not being able to use Lanier as a water source. Gainesville and Buford are the only exceptions, but those cities would see their withdrawals drop to mid-1970s levels.

In a December conference at the University of Georgia, officials said tri-state water talks are moving along slowly and that Georgia’s lawmakers must prepare to make decisions in this session about the state’s water supply.

The higher lake level traces to June 2006, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered that the single gauge being used to measure the lake’s level was miscalibrated, the Lake Lanier Association’s executive vice president, Val Perry, has said.

By then, the lake was 1.9 feet lower than the corps had believed, and 22 billion extra gallons of water had been released from Buford Dam.

Members of Georgia’s congressional delegation grilled Brig. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, commander of the corps’ South Atlantic Division, at a hearing later in Gainesville. Jackie Joseph, the association’s president, pitched the idea of a higher lake.

In February 2007, the Georgia Senate unanimously passed a resolution asking Congress and the corps to study the costs and effects of raising the level.

The corps is expected to release a draft of the new water control manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which includes Lake Lanier, early this year.

Tim Rainey, the corps’ operations projects manager at Buford Dam, has said that raising the full-pool level would have several effects on the lake project.

“We would have to redo a bunch of the recreation areas or facilities,” he said.

Also, guidelines call for the top of riprap and walls to be at 1,075 feet, “so that gives only 2 feet of freeboard if we were at 1,073,” Rainey said in a November 2009 interview.

“What would end up happening, over time, with wave action and fluctuating levels, is water would get behind that stuff and make it fail. Almost all the riprap and bulkhead would have to be modified.”

Cloud said she realizes that raising the lake level is not “the only solution.”

“I think we have to do other things in conjunction with this,” she said. “But it is certainly logical to look at it and consider it, giving what we’re considering in building new reservoirs … and undertaking conservation measures.

“I think it is part of the whole puzzle … in terms of the ultimate solution.”.