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Apr. 22, 2019
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Lanier’s Olympic venue survives flooding with few scars

By Jane Harrison
 
Hundreds of rowers marching their racing shells to launch behind the Lake Lanier Olympic Park boathouse the first weekend of spring didn’t have to get their feet wet. Just a few days before, the boathouse backyard laid underwater. The lake had finally receded after three weeks of high water that inundated not just the boathouse apron, but also all facilities at the park which has a master plan for more than $10 million in renovations, but no proposal to control flooding.
 
“None of our work has addressed that,” said architect Matt Millard, a partner in the architectural firm contracted by Gainesville Hall ’96 to design a master plan for park improvements. The boathouse and tower, originally built to accommodate 1996 Olympic canoe/kayak and rowing, are made of concrete and steel, not tons of sheetrock,” Millard said. “Those materials are marginally more tolerant of water,” he said, adding that there are limited options for flood-proofing the structures built originally as temporary accommodations for water sports.
 
Since the Olympics, LLOP has emerged as more than a headquarters for local rowers and paddlers into its recent revival as a world-renown rowing and canoe/kayak venue and community gathering place for food trucks, concerts, weddings, and reunions. It brings in millions of tourism dollars annually.
 
“Every facility like this has to have a plan to deal with high water,” said the architect whose family connections with LLOP go back to the Olympics. Before Millard, Inc. began work on the master plan more than five years ago, droughts and low water were of greater concern than water getting in.
 
“This was the third time” in less than a year that water seeped into the boathouse, said LLOP Assistant Manager James Watkins said last month. Heavy winter rains that raised the lake to 1076.10 on Feb. 24 also caused unprecedented flooding of the Olympic tower and covered the bottom platform below the grandstands. Picnic tables near the beach appeared as little islands on the flooded shore. Water lapped into a nearby mechanics’ shed and storage building.
 
Before the water rose, Watkins pulled on waders and with Millard observed county laborers piling sandbags in front of the boathouse bay doors and AC units. They turned off the electricity and waited. The lake overlapped the sandbags and covered the boathouse bottom floor with more than a half-foot of water. It entered a tower drain and spilled half inch onto the first floor.
 
While waiting for the water to go down, park management, the Lanier Rowing Club, and the Lake Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club worked around the deluge. A dock was moved to a grassy point so college rowing crews could launch spring break training camps. Paddlers hit the turf running and the gym to work out. Those training for national team trials “waded through the very chilly water and debris and literally paddled out the doors,” said LCKC Coach Jim O’Dell. Organizers of a popular Southeastern rowing regatta pondered how they’d get hundreds of athletes into and out of their boats.
 
“It took a little bit of accommodation,” said John Ferriss, who oversees the rowing club’s collegiate rowing training camps at LLOP. Days before University of Michigan and Penn State crews arrived, the water was still thigh high behind the boathouse on 6-plus foot tall Ferriss. Despite the tons of debris that washed in, contamination tests showed the water was not unsafe, he said. Ferriss informed incoming crews they had to store boats in the parking circle rather than in or behind the boathouse.
 
Both clubs used rakes, shovels and pitchforks to stack debris for pick up by a bobcat loader and deposited into a dumpster, O’Dell said. They then focused attention inside, where O’Dell noted “some very large and new cracks” in boathouse floors and walls. “Boathouse floors and such still need to be pressure-washed and otherwise disinfected,” he said.
 
When the water receded, rowing referees and officials were able to hold a scheduled conference in the tower, which had been swept out and dried just in time. And rowers competing in the John Hunter Regatta launched from behind the boathouse on a gorgeous, dry first weekend of spring.
 
All parties invested in LLOP’s future contemplate what to do to prevent future flooding. “We’re counting on the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to regulate the lake to 1,071 (feet), and not to raise it to 1,073,” said Robyn Lynch, LLOP manager. She asserted that if the Corps ever decides to raise the lake level, as advocated by a lake organization and some government officials, the venue would be regularly inundated. Water pours over the seawall behind the boathouse whenever the level reaches 1,074.
 
Millard said that the idea of raising the concrete floor of the boathouse was not a practical solution. Boats are racked nearly floor to ceiling. Boaters carrying long boats in and out would have difficulty maneuvering. Nor is raising the seawall a feasible option. Building up the wall behind the boathouse could create too steep an angle to connect the docks, especially when the lake drops below 1,071.
 
“Going forward, (LLOP entities) can take some lessons and apply them,” Millard said. Sandbag placement, pumping, and additional sealing are likely to be among suggestions tossed about in any action plan.
 
Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said the city would also weigh in. Pending state approval, the city will annex LLOP and take over operations in July. Flood control measures “will be looked into” at the newest city park, Dunagan said.

Posted online 3/29/19
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