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Drought Closes Boat Ramps

Drought Brings Great Fishing But Strands Boaters on Dry Ramps

Jessica Newberry | November 1, 2007

Take a trip to many of Georgia’s lakes, and you can almost hear the familiar gurgle of bathwater draining from a tub. The broadening rings of shoreline around Lanier, Allatoona and others are tell-tale signs that the state is in its worst drought in a century.

“North Georgia is in an exceptional drought, one that occurs roughly once every 100 years,” said state climatologist David Stooksbury. “Even rare events do eventually have to happen.”

As lake levels continue to drop, drought conditions have varied greatly across the state.

“Much of southeast and coastal Georgia is not currently in drought or is classified as abnormally dry,” said David. “As you move into southwest Georgia, you get into extreme and exceptional drought conditions.

“The atmosphere is very complex, but we’ve had the greatest breakthrough in our understanding of the atmosphere in the last 25 years,” said David. “For the general public’s understanding, we have the ENSO or, the El Niño Southern Oscillation, cycle.”

This cycle involves three possible stages of weather in Georgia: el niño, la niña and the neutral phase. El niño typically causes a cool, wet winter in much of Georgia while la niña results in a warmer, dry winter.

“We are in el niño 25 percent of the time and la niña 25 percent,” said David. “Neutral winters occur for the remaining 50 percent and cause the ‘roller-coaster’ winters. All of our major extreme cold events have occurred during neutral winters.”

These cycles are based on observations of previous years, but their effects are not always predictable.

“Last year was an el niño winter, but it didn’t follow the normal pattern,” he said. “The winter was dry unexpectedly, and by the time we reached April this year, the state was extremely dry.”

After starting the year in drier conditions than normal, Georgia was already behind on rainfall and was well on its way to a significant drought.

“During the summer in Georgia, the moisture loss from the soils due to evaporation and plant use is usually greater than the rainfall,” David said. “Even if we have normal rain, we don’t have enough to replenish that loss.”

Because of the unusual el niño stage, the annual summer evaporation intensified Georgia’s drought conditions and has brought on record-low levels in lakes and streams.

“October is historically our driest month of the year,” David said. “As any outdoor enthusiast can tell you, October is when the stream beds are lowest. However, this October we are seeing record-low stream flows. All-time records have been set on the Middle Oconee River at Athens, and the data on that goes back 73 years.”

The Chattooga River in northeast Georgia has had an all-time record low in data that goes back 67 years, according to David. The Little River near Washington and Spring Creek in southwest Georgia have completely stopped flowing.

Although the ENSO climate patterns alternate from year to year, David predicts that Georgia’s drought is far from over.

“Our biggest concern is that it appears that a la niña climate pattern is setting up for this winter,” he said. “Historically, a la niña is warm and dry, particularly south of the mountains. This climate pattern could keep it relatively dry, so we may not receive adequate rainfall this winter to recharage ground water, surface water, reservoirs and soils.”

The most obvious indicators of current conditions in Georgia are its lakes, bodies of water that are getting national attention because of rapidly decreasing water levels.

“Georgia has no natural lakes; all are man-made, which means they are actually regulated,” said David. “Big lakes like Hartwell, Lanier and Allatoona were built for multiple purposes like power generation, flood control and recreation, so they are managed with multiple needs that have to be taken into account.

“The Army Corps of Engineers manages many of Georgia’s lakes and has several reasons for changing water levels. Some water is released to maintain enough in the streams to keep them biologically healthy for fish and other aquatic life. They also have to release enough water downstream to make sure that the intakes for municipal water systems are underwater so cities can meet their water needs,” said David, who is also a professor of engineering and atmospheric sciences at UGA.

With lake levels continuing to drop due to evaporation, lack of rainfall and the necessary movement of water from one area to another, it could be a long wait for recovery.

“It’s very difficult to predict how long the lakes will take to recover because it largely depends on the size of the watershed,” David said. “Lake Lanier’s watershed is actually pretty small, 1,044 square miles. It’s the equivalent of drawing a circle with a radius of 18.2 miles.

“It’s not very big, and it’s like having to get water into a bucket before you have any hope of getting it into the lake. Part of that is getting water into the correct watershed. Also, we have to get the stream flows back up, which means soil moisture and groundwater levels must be up. It’s a drawn-out process, and it will take time. It’s not hopeless by any stretch, but it’s going to take a rainy winter to accomplish this.”

As water levels continue to fall, some fishermen say it could be the best fishing in decades, but what’s good fishing when you can’t get a boat in the water?

Lanier fishing guide Ryan Coleman is already hearing horror stories of hour-long waits at the boat ramps as sinking water levels leave them high and dry.

“The ramps are packed right now,” said Ryan. “Three out of 14 are still open, but even parts that are still open have a very limited access.”

Ryan is lucky enough to have offers to use private docks still surrounded by water, but for many, it’s a struggle to get onto the lake.

“I’m getting a lot of clients saying they’re not going to be putting their boats in the water, and one guy has already told me he wanted to sell his boat,” he said. “Most of my clients are regular fishermen, though; they know the fishing’s going to be good.”

Although lower water levels will change the location of the fish, Ryan remains optimistic for this year.

“If the water’s still down in the winter, we will probably have our best fishing in the last 20 years,” he said. “But in next year’s spawn, it will really hurt us if the water isn’t up. The availability of shoreline cover is critical because all the bass spawn around the shoreline. When the eggs hatch, they will have no cover to hide, and all the other predators — shad, herring, bluegill and other bass — will eat them.”

Ryan also predicts drought-related problems with the lake’s annual winter tournament trail. “It’s always very successful, but the corps will probably not let them have it this year because the boat ramps would be completely absorbed with the tournament.”

Lake Allatoona is facing similar access issues with just over half its public boat ramps still available, according to Park Ranger Chris Purvis with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We still have five public ramps available, and they are mostly available year-round,” he said. “We have to reach about 815 msl (mean sea level) for all the ramps to be closed. Currently, we’re expected to go below the winter pool level of 823, but we can’t really predict after that. There are nine boat ramps total, not counting the ones in the campgrounds that close after Labor Day.”

On Monday, Oct. 15, the lake was at 824, 16 feet under the normal pool of 840. “It’s usually about 5 to 8 feet higher than we are now,” Chris said. “In 1961, it went down to 816.33, the lowest level we’ve had since pool levels were raised in 1957.”

The corps reduced flows from Allatoona at the beginning of October from 700 to 500 cubic feet per second to prevent the depletion of water storage. Currently, the lake’s level is dropping about a foot every 10 days, according to Purvis.

“It’s been unseasonably warm, and we have a lot of recreational boaters still going out,” he said. “We’ve been putting out warnings for underwater obstacles and other hazards that are created when you try to cram so many boats in. A lot of people who fish this time of year are used to going out when the water is this low, but we’re encouraging everyone to be safe and wear their life jackets.”

These safety concerns have brought increased business to Clarks Hill fishing guide William Sasser.

“It’s not really affecting business,” he said. “I’m still fishing at least five days a week. I probably get more business because people don’t want to run up on stuff. You have a lot of problems, especially with underwater islands, just like last year when it was right about the same level.”

The biggest inconvenience for William has been accessibility.

“The water being down has really caused boat-ramp problems,” he said. “It’s hard to find a good boat ramp to put in at because most are dumping you off into the mud. A lot of them are closed, including at least half of the ones I use.”

But the lack of available boat ramps isn’t keeping William off the water.

“Striper fishing has been great lately, but crappie fishing has been medium, not extra special,” he said.

Although striped bass fishing has been going well for William due to the concentration of the fish in less water, he is skeptical about its effect on crappie.

“If the water stays down, it’s definitely going to affect the spawn as far as crappie are concerned since they would be susceptible to being eaten by predators without cover,” he said.

Fisheries Biologist Jim Hakala with WRD also expects current water conditions to improve fishing.

“The lower lake levels will concentrate fish a little more, and with cooling air temperatures, fishing could potentially be really good,” he said.

The drought will negatively affect fishing only if the water is still falling during the spawning period and leaving nests dry, Jim said.

“It is the policy of the Army Corps to maintain steady or rising water during spring spawning,” he said. “If the water is still down, there might not be as much shallow-water habitat as in years past. A lot will depend on the physical characteristics of each reservoir.”

Despite the potential for unsuccessful spawning, Jim does not anticipate any permanent effects on the fish population, but lack of rainfall has had negative effects on some private ponds.

“Some private ponds are going dry, and it seems like there have been a lot more private-water fish kills lately,” Jim said. “The water is getting low and really stagnant. During the hot summer months, we were getting frequent calls, but with the water cooling down, this is starting to tail off considerably. We still need rain to fill the ponds back up, though.”

Despite the concentration of fish in the state’s lakes, Carters Lake Natural Resources Specialist Jeff Pobieglo has seen a decrease in boaters and anglers on the lake. The six boat ramps on Carters were closed on Sept. 7 after the lake level fell below 1055.

“The boat-ramp closures have decreased boating and fishing recreation since there are no private docks on the shoreline,” he said. “We’ve seen a great increase in kayaks and canoes, probably because the streams are so low. People are using the lakes instead.”

Boaters can still hand-launch into Carters until water levels are high enough to re-open the lake’s boat ramps.

“We’ve extended some ramps in the past, but most of the slopes won’t allow for further extension,” Jeff said. “We do have one area that we eventually plan to extend.”

Ramp extensions don’t provide a long-term solution for Carters, according to Buddy Callahan of Bart’s Bait and Tackle.

“How far can you extend the ramps? You can’t just do it forever. We’ve been maintaining a level of 1052, so why can’t we maintain 1056 or 1057?”

After scaling back on its fishing business three years ago, the store hasn’t suffered as much as other bait shops along the lake, but the drought is still taking its toll.

“Some stores in the area rely totally on the lake,” Buddy said. “It’s affected us about 25 percent, but it’s going to affect me more in the next two months with striper fishing.”

After seeing the lake drop rapidly over the past several months, Buddy sold his boat in anticipation of even lower water levels.

“Rain is the only answer,” he said. “Maybe they’ll realize that you can’t put millions of people in such a small area. Atlanta has the smallest water resource for a city its size. If Lanier goes dry, what are we going to do?”

Unlike Carters, West Point Lake still has a few of its 27 ramp locations open, according to corps Park Ranger David Scott.

At presstime Friday Oct. 19, Highland Marina’s ramps were closed with the water level at 13.19 feet below full pool. Highland is turning its customers to the Yellowjacket ramp, which was still useable at presstime. Call Highland ahead of time to check on the condition of the ramp (706) 882-3437.

“We’re at about 621 right now, which is down about 10 feet, but we’re normally trying to draw down to a winter pool of about 628 this time of year,” he said.

The lake’s current level is still above the extended ramps’ bottom elevations of 617, but most boaters will not be able to access it below 619.

“It’s hard to tell what the weather’s going to do, but we’ve discussed the possibility of laying gravel down at the ends of some ramps where that would be feasible,” David said.

Highland Marina Resort owner Danny Ellrich has already dredged the area at the end of his boat ramp into West Point.

“We’ve got the Georgia State Championship tournament coming up,” he said. “Most of the 300 boats for the tournament are going to have to be launched at a place around the corner.”

Highland’s business has already suffered from the cancellation of the Georgia Bass Federation’s 150-boat tournament, but the upcoming 20th Annual Georgia State Championship should provide an economic boost for the entire community.

“When the corps stopped drawing the lake at 622, that saved the tournament,” Danny said. “It’s scheduled for Nov. 3 and 4 and should give LaGrange about a million and a half dollars in business.

“The drought’s been hurting things pretty bad, and the negative press about low lake levels is keeping people away. Our business is probably off by about 60 percent. The lake’s still usable, though; there’s still 20,000 acres of water. With the beautiful fall colors, it’s a great time to be on the lake.”

Mike Spencer, assistant chief of WRD fisheries, also has a positive outlook for recreation despite the current drought conditions.

“Fishing should be pretty good in our reservoirs with the fish being concentrated, and trout fishing was good because our hatcheries were stocking more fish a little bit earlier,” he said.

Lower lake levels are providing opportunities for boat ramp repair and construction, according to Mike.

“The Go Fish Georgia program is moving along well. We’re still identifying possible sites with both components, the hatchery visitors’ center and the tournament ramps, but the current drought gives us a great opportunity to build boat ramps. We can make sure they are extended as deeply into the lakes as possible to make them drought-proof. Getting them in during this historic drought is going to make them usable in similar situations in the future.”

Current levels for the lakes included in this article can be found at <http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ffc/html/rrm.php>. These are provided by the National Weather Service.

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