Corps of Engineers on Lake Lanier Fights Criticism

Corps of EngineersIt has not been a good few years for the Corps of Engineers based on Lake Lanier, and the situation has deterioated in the wake of Georgia’s recent floods. Complaints about the Corps have centered on three areas:

1) Water Levels During This Decade

Over the last few years, Lake Lanier has struggled to reach full pool, partly as a result of the drought that plagued Georgia, but also because of mistakes made by the Corps.

The most famous mistake was in 2006. The Corps discovered in June that the water level was actually 1.9 feet lower that they realised. The gauge used to measure water levels has been incorrectly callibrated.

More recently, they’ve let out more water than local advocacy groups thought neccessary, although more recently water releases have been reduced to around half of the annual average.

Still, the lake has reached full pool only three out of the last eleven years, and currently hasn’t been full in more than four years, since September 6, 2005.

2) Long-Term Lake Management Practices

For years, the Corps has argued that it had the right to use Lake Lanier to supply neighoring counties. As recently as January this year, they issued a statement saying that:

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued an opinion saying that it has the legal authority to supply metro Atlanta’s drinking water from Lake Lanier … Corps attorney Earl Stockdale’s opinion says that setting aside about 12 percent of the lake for drinking water would have only minor effects on the project’s goals to produce hydropower, control floods and float barges.”

That position was famously rejected in July by the now famous “water wars” court case in Jacksonville, Florida. The judge had some sympathy for the Corps but still provided plenty of harsh words:

“The slow pace at which the Corps operates has only served to further complicate and provoke this already complicated and inflammatory case. It is beyond comprehension that the current operating manual for the Buford Dam is more than 50 years old.”

3) Water Releases During the 2009 Floods

The most recent area of criticism for the Corps came during the floods that hit Georgia during September. As rivers and creeks downstream burst their banks, the Corps continued to release water from Lake Lanier, potentially adding to the flood waters.

Jackie Joseph, president of Lake Lanier Association, commented in the Gainesville Times that:

“The feeling is if that water had not gone downstream, (there’s) a good chance … that we probably would not have had as much damage as actually was there,” she said. Technically, I’m not sure I understand all of that, but I do know that flood control means you are supposed to, in my view, prevent downstream flooding.”

As a result, articles questioning the Corps actions appeared in local newspapers, the Atlanta Journal Consitution and further afield. The Corps responded that:

“It is important to note that no dam provides full protection from flooding. Even the best flood structure cannot completely eliminate the risk of flooding.”

They have also been defended by experts such as Kent Frantz, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, who was quoted in the Gainesville Times as saying that the releases:

“couldn’t have changed the depths of the water by even a tenth of a foot, probably. I think people are just looking … for somebody to blame, and there is nobody to blame. All the heavy rain, predominantly, was downstream from Buford Dam.”

That might stand as the Corps defence over the last decade. A combination of unprecdented drought, competing interests and government red tape has made managing the lake very difficult. However, it seems that a series of unavoidable problems has placed the Corps in the media spotlight and avoidable mistakes haven’t always made the spotlight flattering.


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