Some urge review of corps plan

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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 rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

PUBLIC MEETING

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.

Comments (15) Add comment
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pizzato
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pizzato 02/08/09 - 08:37 am
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The corps of engineers sucks

The corps of engineers sucks balls when it come sto managing the lake. They have completely ruined everything and act high and mighty about it. I wish the new government would do away with them all together they serve no purpose whatsoever.

truthteller
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truthteller 02/08/09 - 09:22 am
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The basic problem is there

The basic problem is there are too many dams on the river for the amount of water that's available.

thefish
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thefish 02/08/09 - 10:10 am
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With Lakes Thurmond and

With Lakes Thurmond and Hartwell both currently down 14 feet, I can't imagine what more is needed to show that the current plan needs a total rewrite- conservation must start way earlier and be much stronger, while still meeting minimum downstream needs. The SEPA needs to be out of the picture in drought management.
And releases today need to continue at 3100cfs until harm can be shown, and then adjusted slightly.

BakersfieldCityLimits
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BakersfieldCityLimits 02/08/09 - 10:29 am
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Yawn. This goes into the

Yawn. This goes into the file with all the articles about how the new mayor will solve the train problem in downtown. Wake up people of the CSRA, the water needs of Atlanta will always trump what anyone wants/needs here in a relatively rural section of Georgia. We don't have the votes that will cause anyone in Washington to care what we want.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 02/08/09 - 11:49 am
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Realize there are many of us

Realize there are many of us who live on the river and canal below the dam, plus many communities and industries that depend on the river flow being kept at adequate levels. Also, most importantly is the prevention of salt water intrusion around the city of Savannah. The reduced flow causes increases in detrimental elements, notably chlorine, in that city's and other's drinking water. The two months of reduced flow we just had will result in approximately 450 acres of freshwater marsh being lost according to Corps models. That has a tremendous negative effect on the shellfish industry. People have to understand it is not simply a matter of filling up the lake. Reduced flows have widespread consequences that I have only touched on.

TechLover
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TechLover 02/08/09 - 11:53 am
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Too many needs, too little

Too many needs, too little water. We live in a time of decreased rainfall. Lincoln and McDuffie Counties use the lake for drinking water. Augusta uses the canal. Industries use the water for hydroelectric power and production. There needs to be a minimal flow to continue to produce hydroelectric power at the dams. The expansion of Vogtle will require a major increase in the release of water. We have probably seen the glory days of the lakes. The builders that came in and artificially inflated the value of lake property will have to give up ( in Lincoln County, they actually were charging almost $300K for less than an acre). With power and drinking water concerns, land speculators need to be the last in line as far as priority.

Riverman1
81340
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Riverman1 02/08/09 - 11:56 am
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Here is what we have to keep

Here is what we have to keep in mind. The lake level depends on all those streams in the upstate and that's where the drought has been. The latest U.S. drought monitor reports extreme drought conditions still persist in the Savannah River basin and northeast Georgia. According to state climatologist, Dave Stooksberry, it takes years for lakes to recover from droughts. He says you have to look at the cumulative deficit over a period of years to understand why lake levels stay low.

junket83
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junket83 02/08/09 - 12:18 pm
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TechLover has it right. The

TechLover has it right. The developers and the property owners around the lake should be the last in line. When we have man made lakes and a limited supply of water to fill them the lake levels will follow the weather. We've been in a drought pattern for a number of years now. Eventually the opposite will occur and we'll all be complaining about the flood conditions along the Lakes and the Savannah River. What amazes me is that we can pump oil and natural gas all around this country to feed our need for energy. Why can't the government do the same for water. Generally, when one area is flooded, another is in severe drought. It would be a massive public works project, but hey, it would be good for the environment and the economy.

southern2
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southern2 02/08/09 - 12:26 pm
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Federal laws need to be

Federal laws need to be re-written allowing Lake Russell to be pooled at the same level as Hartwell and Clarks Hill. Since Russell Dam was designed after the other two lakes had satisfied the conservation storage needs on the Savannah River it was designed to operate efficiently by minimizing the drawdown of the lake. Therefore Russell lake levels are always maintained within 5 feet of full pool whereas Hartwell has 35 feet of conservation storage and Thurmond has 18 feet. THIS IS PART OF THE PROBLEM AND NEEDS TO BE CHANGED!

TechLover
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TechLover 02/08/09 - 12:37 pm
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Russell has pumpback

Russell has pumpback capabilities. Also, as you go north along the river, the depth changes greatly. Clarks Hill Lake is shallow and spead out. A few feet down here causes a lot of areas to be empty.

The Knave
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The Knave 02/08/09 - 01:11 pm
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Gresham Barrett is the

Gresham Barrett is the epitome of an empty suit. Therefore, one can safely assume that doing the opposite of whatever he says is probably the best course of action. Furthermore, he is in the pocket of the developers and the well-off lake property owners who grease his palms. Barrett is a dunce who has absolutely no understanding of the simplest of hydrological principles. Like his hero, The Shrub, he is incurious and has, as his main goal in life, being re-elected in perpetuity. It is popular and easy to bash the C of E. Those who do so blame it for the lack of rainfall, the needs of down-stream users, including human and animal populations, and the benefits derived from many people by generating electricity from hydro power. In other words, the C of E is making the best of a bad situation, whereas its bashers want preferential treatment at the expense of everyone and everything else. In short, these folk are self-absorbed, selfish, and uncaring, whose focus is on propping up the prices of property that they own and/or want to develop. This is not a group that deserves anyone's sympathy.

TechLover
15
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TechLover 02/08/09 - 01:17 pm
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Wasn't Barrett in on Charlie

Wasn't Barrett in on Charlie Norwood's plan to sell off the Corp land to developers?(actually return it to the counties that would sell it off to developers)

minime
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minime 02/08/09 - 05:10 pm
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Please don't let it get to

Please don't let it get to the point of the Hooch in Atlanta & the fight between GA, AL, & FL... they're to the ignorant & "I told you so" phases... not one of them has mentioned the original purpose WAS navigation, etc but it has come down to "we want our water".... what will AL & FL say when all that water (Lanier) is gone? AS far as the Savannah goes, if the dams weren't there, there'd be no reason to fued. The Corps is just a governemnt agency backlogged & caught in their own government red tape.
Conservation & preservation are the starting stepping stones.

Lou Stewall
301
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Lou Stewall 02/08/09 - 10:45 pm
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I believe the "shortage" in

I believe the "shortage" in Augusta is of people who want to live here, not water. Maybe people would want to live here if they could go downtown and see a riverfront full of vibrant private development without a 30 ft. berm in front of the river. It is a joke that Augusta is short on water. We just don't want to be forced to share so we pretend to be broke.

Lou Stewall
301
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Lou Stewall 02/08/09 - 11:02 pm
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And another thing, I

And another thing, I certainly hope the COE gets the darn fish ladder at the lock and dam built. That is probably the best "stimulator" the entire east coast could contemplate. Only ONE section of the entire east coast's former fall line shoals can be accessed from the sea by a migratory fish without a major dam being taken down. That is by putting a fish ladder at the Lock and Dam, which would allow 22 miles of unique shoals to be available for fish spawning, where all other ancestral shoals have been dammed off on the East Coast. These minnow fingerlings who come out of the rivers are the main food source for all Atlantic Coast fish schools.

But of course, if you are a follower of Al Gore, don't worry because there will be no fish in the ocean by 2010.

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