2007 Drought Drying Up Georgia Lakes
Access a problem on some lakes as ramps come out of water.
Editor’s Note: After the December issue of GON went to press we learned that the ramps at Lake Varner in Newton County had been closed to all fishing and boating. Varner has a reputation for one of the state’s hottest lakes for catching giant bass. Varner is 10 feet low and has become very dangerous. To check ramp conditions, call Mike Henderson at (770) 784-2049.
As the state moves into the winter months, drought conditions are steadily worsening across the Southeast and providing a bleak outlook for the upcoming months.
“Much of the area south and east of I-75 and I-20 was in relatively good condition and not classified as being in a drought,” said state climatologist David Stooksbury. “However, after a very dry four weeks, we’re seeing drought conditions across the Southern Piedmont into the Northern Coastal Plain deteriorate.”
Although cooler weather is slowing evaporation from Georgia’s precious water sources, a dry winter could continue to bring lake levels down.
“A moderate to strong La Niña climate pattern has developed, which historically brings Georgia a warm and dry winter, ” said David. “This is great for outdoor activities, but we would actually rather have the rain to recharge groundwater, soil moisture and our reservoirs. There is a good possiblity that the drought will slowly increase through the winter.”
The winter months usually provide a slight improvement in stream flows, soil moisture and reservoir levels, but even the upcoming cold, rainy days might not be enough for a complete recovery.
“The big concern is not really the next three to four months but whether we receive enough rain to get us through next summer,” David said. “Some of our immediate concerns are the wildfire dangers due to dry soil and newly fallen leaves and the drought’s effect on our drinking water.”
The full summer pool for Lake Lanier is 1,071 with a winter pool of 1,070, but the bottom of the conservation pool, which is normally used for drinking water, is 1,035.
“These lakes are managed by the Army Corps, and they will still have quite a bit of water in them as levels fall,” said David. “But if the lake goes down to 1,020, it can no longer be drained through generation systems and must be drained from below. If they have to start draining from the bottom of these lakes, the drinking water will have a much higher iron and magnesium content.”
Falling water levels are also causing problems for boaters and anglers on Georgia’s lakes. Access to the state’s reservoirs is becoming increasingly difficult as the water pulls away from boat ramps and docks.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates 85 launching areas on Lake Lanier, but 102 of their 104 lanes have already closed as its level continues to drop.
“We have two ramps open right now, Shoal Creek and Tidwell,” Chief Park Ranger Mark Williams said on Friday, Nov. 16. “Shoal Creek will probably be out of service by Monday, and Tidwell will probably last about four to five weeks.”
Boaters on Lanier are also facing a higher number of hazards in the water, but corps park rangers are marking submerged objects with 14-inch orange floats with reflective stripes.
Corps park rangers across the state, including West Point Park Ranger David Barr, are warning those on Georgia’s lakes to look out for hazards and be cautious.
“Typically, visitation drops off during the late fall and winter months, and most of the people on the water now are avid fishermen,” said David. “Hazards are appearing in various places, and we recommend that boaters remain within the main channel and proceed at a safe speed. Most of the hazards are outside the main navigation channel.”
West Point boaters can follow the main-river channel using its 103 buoys that are lit with solar-powered navigation lights.
Although West Point Lake is about 12 feet below normal pool, the corps currently has six boat ramps open, thanks to some foresight during a project in the 1980s.
“Around 1986, we had to lower the lake to put in rip-rap rock by the dam to stabilize the shoreline,” said David. “Since the water was already down for these improvements, they decided to go ahead and extend those ramps.”
The ramps were drought-proofed with concrete sections added to the bottoms of the ramps, bringing their accessible elevation to 617. These ramps are located at Yellowjacket Recreation Area, Sunny Point Park, Horace King Park, Dewberry Park, Rocky Point Park and Georgia Park. The boat ramp at Georgia Park is only safely accessible to an elevation of 619, so David suggests using one of the other five access points.
“Our level is forecast to remain around 622 through mid December,” said David, “but it defnitely needs to rain. There’s going to have to be a complete change in the weather pattern to help us recover from this drought.”
Lake Allatoona’s levels are not holding as steadily as West Point’s and are predicted to fall another 3 feet by mid-December.
“In some places, we’re starting to go down to water levels that people in this area have never seen before,” said corps Park Ranger Chris Purvis. “Boaters need to watch for underwater obstacles like stumps and sandbars and be careful in shallow areas.”
In addition to hazards, anglers on Allatoona must also deal with fewer boat ramps. In the November issue, GON reported that Lake Allatoona had five corps-operated ramps available with a lake level of 824, but since it has dropped to 820.2, two have closed.
“We still have three ramps open: Cooper’s Branch, Galt’s Ferry and the Blockhouse,” Chris said on Monday, Nov. 19. “Cooper’s Branch should be closing very soon, though, and we’re expecting to bottom out on the other two ramps within the next few weeks.”
The corps has 14 ramps on Allatoona, five of which are in the campgrounds and close after Labor Day. Of the nine ramps available in the fall, the three still in use go to an elevation of 819, only a foot below the lake’s current level.
“Several of the fishing guides on Allatoona are putting together a committee to get these ramps extended,” Chris said. “We’re working on the preliminary stuff right now; they’ve contacted our offices, and we’re going to meet with them sometime in the next several weeks.”
If the ramp extensions are approved, a permit for each ramp must be obtained from the corps. It is unknown whether any of the ramps can be extended, but Chris believes it will be possible on some of the ones that are currently open.
“It’s going to be a lengthy process because you can’t just go out all of a sudden and add on to a ramp,” he said, “but it will benefit the corps and the public in case something like this happens in the future.”
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