Originally created 04/24/04

Dry weather begins to worry outfitters as river gets lower



CAMILLA, Ga. - Knotty cypress trees cling to the steep banks of Flint River at the River Bend Recreation Area, as the smell of honeysuckle drifts across the grassy landscape and water gurgles over exposed limestone rocks.

With the river level dropping after weeks of dry weather, John Singletary watches the Flint more closely than usual. As a canoe outfitter, his livelihood rises and falls with its flow.

His Flint River Outpost sells bait to anglers and provides canoes and kayaks for excursions along the scenic river.

With little rain since February, stream flows are declining on the Flint and elsewhere in the Southeast. It reminds some of the severe 1998-2003 drought, which forced some states to limit water use and made farmers tap aquifers for their crops.

Officials in Mitchell County, south of Albany, claimed land inundated in Georgia's worst natural disaster - a deadly 1994 flood - and turned it into the River Bend Recreation Area. Mr. Singletary leases an acre of land near the park for his business.

The lack of rain is obvious here - the water level has dropped to about 5 feet below normal, though there is still enough water for canoe trips.

"The Indians have been going up and down this river for thousands of years," Mr. Singletary said. "We're going to have droughts and floods. It's nature's way of taking care of itself."

U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists report lower-than-normal stream flows in Alabama, the Florida panhandle, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina.

"If it's the start of another long-term dry cycle, we're in trouble," said Larry Bohman, a surface water specialist in the USGS regional office in Atlanta. "If it's just temporary, then I don't think it's that big a deal insofar as public water supplies."

Tim Stamey, a hydrologist in the USGS' state office in Atlanta, said river flows are below normal in the southern two-thirds of Georgia, which includes some of the state's major rivers - the Chattahoochee, the Savannah, the Altamaha, the Ocmulgee and the Oconee.

Also included is the Flint, which runs about 350 miles from its origin near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Lake Seminole in extreme southwestern Georgia. It joins the Chattahoochee at the lake to form the Apalachicola, which runs through Florida to the Gulf of Mexico.

Georgia's state climatologist, David Stooksbury, said mild drought conditions might continue through the summer.

With abundant rain last year, the reservoirs that supply municipal drinking water in north Georgia have adequate supplies, but their levels might soon begin to drop without rain, Mr. Stooksbury said.

March and April are usually important months for recharging the aquifers. That isn't happening this year, but they still hold more water than at the height of the drought, Mr. Stooksbury said.

With the lower water level, more limestone protrudes from the river.

Jim McDaniel, the owner of the Flint River Outdoor Center near Thomaston, about 60 miles south of Atlanta, is more vulnerable to the low flows than Mr. Singletary, but he said there's still enough water for canoeists.

"It's a little low," said Mr. McDaniel, who has been a river outfitter for 25 years.

"They may have to get out once or twice to get the canoe off a rock. But if it continues for another 30 days, we could probably hang it up for the year. It'd be too much work for people to go downriver and be enjoyable."