Drought in the Southeast

3 States Compete for Water From Shrinking Lake Lanier

Rafael Lopez fishes on the exposed bank of Lake Lanier near Buford Dam in Georgia. The lake's water level has prompted a dispute among three states.
Rafael Lopez fishes on the exposed bank of Lake Lanier near Buford Dam in Georgia. The lake's water level has prompted a dispute among three states. (By Jessica Mcgowan -- Getty Images)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

BUFORD, Ga., Oct. 26 -- No gauges are necessary at Lake Lanier to measure the ravages of the Southeast's drought.

Wooden fishing docks tower 10 feet over dried mud that used to be squishy lake bottom. Boat ramps begin at the parking lot and end in sand. New islands emerge from shallows.

"If the water drops another foot, I don't know that anyone will be able to get a boat in," said Mike Boyle, 64, a resident who has long trolled the lake for spotted and striped bass.

The waters of Lake Lanier, funneled through federal dams along the Chattahoochee River, sustain about 2.8 million people in the Atlanta metropolitan area, a nuclear power plant that lights up much of Alabama, and the marine life in Florida's Apalachicola River and Bay.

Now, amid one of the worst droughts on record, all three places feel uncomfortably close to running dry. That has prompted a three-state fight that has simmered for years to erupt into testy exchanges over which one has the right to the lake's dwindling water supply and which one is or is not doing its share to conserve it.

The dispute, which some experts say provides a glimpse of what uncontrolled growth could mean for the future, has reached all the way to the White House as the Republican governors of Alabama, Georgia and Florida have appealed to President Bush for larger shares of the flow.

After a month of blustery news conferences and jabbing news releases from the competing governors, Bush dispatched Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne today to mediate an agreement.

"This was a real priority with President Bush," Kempthorne said, noting that the trip means he will be dealing with the California wildfires from the road. "If it were easy, this would have been settled 18 years ago."

The focal point of the interstate debate is Lake Lanier, a reservoir that was created in the late 1950s with the construction of the Buford Dam, which blocked the flow of the Chattahoochee River.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam, manages the flow of water through the structure to generate electricity and to accommodate downstream users, mainly utilities, industrial plants and the fisheries of the Apalachicola River and Bay.

Every morning, sirens wail just downriver from the dam. Then 52 stainless steel gates spin open, and, in a bubbling gush, the precious waters of the lake flow out into the Chattahoochee.

Amid the drought, the Corps has released more water from Lake Lanier than has flowed in, and Atlantans have grown increasingly worried about Lanier's dwindling levels. They are down about 15 feet from normal.

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