Originally created 07/18/02

A drop in the water



It's been almost three years since Larry Gilpin's dock at Thurmond Lake had water beneath it.

"It got within a foot of it once - last year - and it went right back down again," said Mr. Gilpin, whose lot straddles a cove in Lincoln County. "Now it just keeps dropping."

The reservoir's lagging water levels are inching toward their lowest point since the record drought of the late 1980s, according to Jim Parker, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.

The 70,000-acre lake's normal full pool is 330 feet above sea level. On Wednesday, the pool was 320 and falling. Without bountiful rainfall, the pool could drop to 316 or lower by late August.

The 1980s drought, which dropped the lake's pool almost 18 feet, is one of the worst on record in the lake's 50-year history.

The current drought - entering its third year - has made declining lake levels almost the norm for anglers and lake area residents.

Forecasters fear that it will get worse before it gets better.

"Our ramps are good until it drops to 317," said Bill Tinley, the superintendent at Mistletoe State Park near Appling. "If the lake drops beyond that, we'd be out of the boat-ramp business."

Unusable ramps can gut tourism at major lakes, he said.

"The ramps are your lifeblood," he said. "People who come here are here because of the lake. If you can't provide access to the lake, they're going somewhere else where they can get that access."

On Wednesday, a crew from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was at Mistletoe evaluating sites for a new, low-water boat ramp that would preserve access to the reservoir even in the event of record low levels.

"We're looking, possibly, at taking one of our existing ramps and putting in a new one that goes farther down," Mr. Tinley said. "We'll chase the water level as far as we can."

Elijah Clark State Park in Lincoln County also depends heavily on its ramps, which were extended in the late 1980s to accommodate lower levels, said Sean Stickle, the assistant superintendent.

"We're able to provide access to the 315 to 316 level," he said. "After that, we'll have to see."

The Corps is managing the lake - and companion reservoirs Russell and Hartwell upstream - under a Drought Contingency Plan devised after the drought of the 1980s.

The plan already is in its second phase of conditional operations, which requires cutbacks in hydropower generation - and the accompanying water releases from the dam into the Savannah River above Augusta.

The releases are at a reduced rate - 4,500 cubic feet per second - and would be cut further when lake levels fall to 316 feet above sea level, triggering the drought plan's third phase.

Mr. Parker said that phase calls for conserving water in the lake by reducing water releases to no more than 3,600 cubic feet per second.

"Part of the time we're doing that already, though," he said.

The reservoir is designed to be able to fall as low as 312 feet above sea level, at which time releases into the Savannah River would be calculated to match inflows, he said.

The primary culprit is the current drought cycle's longevity, which has forced the Southeastern Power Administration - which markets electricity from Corps dams - to buy power elsewhere.

Since 1999, the power administration has purchased more than $33 million in power from alternate sources to meet its contractual obligations. Those purchases prevented lake levels from falling further.

Go to augustachronicle.com/sports/outdoors for the latest river and lake levels.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119 or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.