What’s going on with the Shoreline Management Plan update? Why is permitting taking so long? What’s the future of water levels at Lake Lanier?
The list of questions was long – more than 85 – submitted to the Lake Lanier Association for the Corps of Engineers’ Tim Rainey, operations project manager for Lake Lanier in a special 90-minute webinar. Hosted by the association, the event had nearly 240 participants online to hear what Rainey had to say.
“I’ve been wanting to address constituents and stakeholders for a good while, then the pandemic hit,” he said at the start of the call. “I am so grateful that the Lake Lanier Association has the technology to make this happen.”
Rainey used the first portion of the webinar to provide an overview of the lake and its purposes, how the lake’s operations relate to the rest of the Apalachicola Chattahoochee Flint water basin, and the process of changes and approvals to lake management. “Lake Lanier is truly a project, not just the lake itself, but it’s part of a system that’s diverse and multifaceted,” he said at the start of the call. “We are charged with considering the entire system of the ACF and balancing what we do here with the other parts of the system. Plus we have various approvals from the Mobile District and the South Atlantic Division to consider, which can be complex.”
Over the past few years, the lake’s levels have been either near or over full pool – 1070 in the winter and 1071 in the summer. “However, increased rainfall, the recent microburst, tropical storms and hurricanes have adversely affected the lake,” he said. “With the new Water Control Manual, we now have some flexibility if the lake begins to exceed two feet above full pool. At that point, we can increase water releases from the dam, provided the system downstream can accommodate them.” Explaining that the lake is ideally operated at full pool, any significant increase in water levels can be detrimental. “Marinas, campgrounds and parks are not designed to handle higher water levels. Increased shoreline erosion and other issues occur.”
COVID-19 and the lake
Lanier saw record visitation in 2020. “Outdoor recreation was one of the few things that people could do during the pandemic and Lake Lanier had 12.8 million visitors as of September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year,” Rainey said. “We don’t see any signs of this slowing significantly into 2021.” With increased visitation, Rainey said that trash dumping, unruly behavior and vandalism rose significantly. “These situations caused further demands on our already-reduced staff, who did as much as possible to help remedy these conditions. But these acts translate into needing more money to take care of these issues.” Rainey said he had not yet received any directive from the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army, which includes oversight of the Corps of Engineers, regarding President Biden’s executive order to wear masks in outdoor settings. “We will need to wait for that guidance,” he said. “Then we will follow the guidelines.” Currently, the Corps’ offices on Buford Dam Road remain closed, although staff is still working remotely or in the field. Phones are also being manned as well, and phone calls are being returned as quickly as possible. “We are working through phone messages and emails in addition to our fieldwork and other duties,” he said. “We urge callers to not leave duplicate voicemails and to respond to messages left by rangers. But if you haven’t heard from someone in a week, please call us again.” The goal is to improve response times and to reopen the office. “We will be doing some renovations to the office to reopen to the public as well.”
The 2020 figure of 12.8 million visitors at Lanier exceeded all but two National Park Service sites, according to statistics. According to Corps figures, visitation resulted in: almost $700 million in visitor spending within 30 miles of Lanier; almost 5,000 jobs within 30 miles of Lake Lanier; and $176 million in labor income within 30 miles of Lake Lanier. “That’s the good news,” he said. “However, increased visitation led to more vandalism and we had to divert some of our funds from other projects to make repairs. For instance, the restrooms at Vann’s Tavern were destroyed, plus storm damage at Van Pugh and other parks is basically being handled right now as clean-up.” The work targeted on Old Federal Park will not be completed in time for the spring season. (See separate box.)
The Master Plan for Lanier is nearing completion. As a strategic land-use management plan, it guides the management and development of the project’s recreation, natural and cultural resources. From the website: “Key topics to be addressed in the revised Master Plan include revised land classifications, new natural and recreational resource management objectives, recreation facility needs and special topics such as invasive species management and threatened and endangered species habitat.” It also addresses Lanier’s carrying capacity and density, limiting lake access through marinas, launch ramps and private docks. “The lake is crowded and to be good environmental stewards, the plan will be limiting water access,” Rainey said. “That means there will be no more marinas built on the lake.” He explained, however, that adding docks and slips at marinas is dependent on each marina’s Master Plan that has already been approved by the Corps. “If the marina’s approved master plan includes expansion of docks and other boat storage, they can certainly build out within that plan.” Abandoned docks/derelict vessels Working in partnership with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Lake Lanier Association, the Corps has been able to address abandoned and derelict docks and vessels, removing them from the lake and shoreline. “The program, which began six years ago, has made great strides,” he said. “(The association) is to be commended for the countless hours of work in securing grants and funding, partners to assist with this issue and to get most of these boats off the lake.” He asked that if people see what they think may be an abandoned vessel or a derelict dock to please notify the Corps or the association so that it can be investigated.
Anyone doing business on Lanier is required to have a permit and authorization to do so from the Corps of Engineers. “This is especially important with people saying they work on docks,” he said. ‘There are three approved areas that our permitted dock builders can use to build on the lake: Highway 53, Latham Creek and Beaver Ruin. We hope to soon post the names of businesses who are authorized to work on the lake on our website.” Recently, unauthorized vendors have been removing docks for residents. “If you see someone towing a dock across the lake, please take a photo and send it to either us or the Lake Lanier Association. We’re trying to avoid some of the fraud from people advertising on social media that they remove docks. In some cases, they will take your money, then simply haul the dock away and drop it on Corps property. If they do, the original dock owner is still liable for removing it and may be fined.”
Rainey acknowledged that he is working with the staff to improve the amount of time required to approve shoreline modifications and dock permitting for changes of ownership and other procedures. “For the past two to three years, we’ve been operating at about 60 percent of our full staff. We are all aware of the need to improve our processes,” he said. “In all honesty, right now the permitting process is taking between three and six months. Ideally, we want to handle the process in six to eight weeks. We’ve been working through the backlog. And my No. 1 priority is improving our communications.” A regulatory change in the process requires involvement from the Corps Real Estate office. “Issues that involved public lands, management by the Corps, such as pathways to docks or anchoring docks to the Shoreline have been shifted to the Real Estate office for additional review,” he said. “Once that’s done, then we can issue the permit.” The Lake Lanier Association plans other webinars in 2021. (See separate article.)
Old Federal opening delayed
The opening of Old Federal Campgrounds may be delayed until 2022. “Because of additional damage from the storms this summer and fall even more erosion occurred, making Old Federal unsafe to open as planned,” said Tim Rainey, operations project manager. “We are still hoping to open the campground sometime this summer, but at this point, we want to ensure that it is completely safe to open.” For more information, call the Corps’ Office at 770 945-9531.