When the phone rings at U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett's office, it's a better than even bet the call has something to do with the Savannah River and its lakes.
"During the summer we got anywhere from five to 10 calls a day, every day," he said in a telephone interview. "It was the No. 1 issue. It was amazing."
Last fall, drought pushed Lake Hartwell to a record low and dropped Thurmond Lake to levels not seen in decades. This year promises to be just as bad, or perhaps worse.
The Army Corps of Engineers manages the lakes under a federally approved drought plan. The corps also helps decide how water is to be shared by a growing list of often competing interests.
Mr. Barrett and others believe it is time to compel the corps to re-examine how the river is shared during times of crisis.
"We have encouraged them to re-evaluate what they are doing and how they are doing it," said Mr. Barrett, who is communicating with corps leaders in Washington on an increasingly frequent basis.
Part of the issue is whether adjustments are needed in mandatory releases of water through the dams to satisfy downstream users, which include Augusta and its array of industries.
"Once we turn that water loose, we aren't going to get it back," Mr. Barrett said. "These lakes were never designed for the economies we have today. And fortunately or unfortunately, economics is what drives so much of what goes on up here."
Marinas, real estate interests and small businesses all suffer when low water drives away visitors to the lakes.
The corps has hard data on how many kilowatts of electricity are generated and how much drinking water is pumped out or streams and reservoirs. More data are needed on the value of the recreation economy.
"There is a new economic study at Lake Hartwell, initiated in January, that might answer some of these questions," Mr. Barrett said. "What we're trying to do is better figure out how the economy plays into the decisions that are made."
The corps has a mandate from Congress to manage the lakes for specific purposes: hydropower, fish and wildlife, flood control, water supply, water quality and recreation.
But is that mandate specific enough? People such as Dean Antonakos aren't sure.
"There's no question some of those policies need to be re-examined," he said.
Mr. Antonakos and a partner, Tommy Lee, are builders and developers at Thurmond Lake whose projects include a 155-lot subdivision called The Retreat.
"We got water approval, we got sewer approval, we got gas at the marina. We've got everything ready to go, but we can't get any funding right now," he said.
Even if they could get the capital they need, the low water levels would add yet another challenge at what is supposed to be one of the South's premier lake destinations.
"We had a meeting last fall to talk about this and we filled up the McCormick County gym," Mr. Antonakos said. "People care about this issue."
The corps, he added, seems perpetually stuck in the middle.
"They're like a juggler with six or eight balls with all these authorized purposes," he said.
Possible remedies might include changing the drought plan to keep more water in Thurmond Lake by releasing less into the Savannah. Other proposed changes have included revising the plan to require stricter conservation at much higher water levels.
"There is no sense in waiting 'til we get to this critical stage to figure out what we're going to do," Mr. Antonakos said. "We just need to figure out what everybody can live with."
Downstream near Augusta, environmentally sensitive areas include the Augusta shoals and spawning grounds downstream for American shad and endangered shortnose sturgeon. At the same time, industries and wastewater plants from downtown Augusta to Plant Vogtle in Burke County all depend on a steady water supply.
Harry Shelley, a facilitator with Friends of the Savannah River Basin, believes water has become precious enough that it warrants more focused efforts to manage and preserve it.
"When the lakes were built, we didn't have the population up here that we have now that draws its income from the lake area," he said. "And there doesn't seem to be enough urgency in conserving water."
A focused effort to monitor and manage real-time inflows above and below the dams could help preserve lake levels. Such efforts, Mr. Shelley said, have only recently been initiated by the corps, which in December was able to stop the flow of water from Thurmond Dam because heavy rainfall just above Augusta made releases temporarily unnecessary.
That action saved an estimated 0.2 feet of water at Thurmond Lake, he said, and illustrates that better conservation is possible.
It might also be possible to examine how much of the river's flow is diverted into the Augusta Canal, which is used for hydromechanical power that pumps drinking water to Augusta's treatment plant on Highland Avenue.
"It becomes an economic tradeout where you have to look at the environmental concerns and decide if they need all that water," he said.
Often forgotten in discussions of corps policies is the fact that the river is a shared resource for Georgia and South Carolina.
Braye Boardman, the Georgia chairman of The Nature Conservancy, believes the Savannah's water policies are already among the most scrutinized of any watershed in the region.
He calls that a good thing.
"I'm not the one to say whether they (the corps) are right or wrong," he said. "But one thing that is unique in the Savannah River Basin is that we aren't caught up in all the lawsuits of other states, and that says volumes about the level of communication we have."
Mr. Boardman, who also serves on Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue's Savannah River water committee, noted that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has a similar board -- and the two groups meet often.
"In terms of whether the rules need to be changed, and what they should be changed to, we have an enormous number of partners already at the table," he said.
They include the two states and a host of academic, state, federal and private organizations all sharing information.
"I think we're going down the right path," Mr. Boardman said. "All these partners are trying to gather hard scientific data to plug into the modeling to make the system work for everyone."
Mr. Barrett -- who discussed the issue recently with the corps' South Atlantic Division commander Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel -- believes it will ultimately be up to the states to guide the river's future.
"I'm excited to see Gov. Sanford and Gov. Perdue working together," he said. "When I talked to Gen. Schroedel about Congress and the idea of intervention, his whole spiel was that if we are going to make changes, they need to come from the CEOs of the two states."
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: The Lincoln County Commission will hold a meeting on the economic impact of the drought on lake-area business and real estate interests.
WHEN: Feb. 17 at 7 p.m.
WHERE: Lincoln County Courthouse in Lincolnton, Ga.
WHO'S COMING: Georgia and South Carolina elected officials and resource agency representatives have been invited.