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May. 28, 2017
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WCM approved, new drought operations started

By Jane Harrison
 
Within days of signing a Decision of Record for an updated water control manual, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiated new drought control measures on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. After water releases from Buford Dam were reduced to a minimum the first week of April, Lake Lanier’s level rose about one foot by month’s end. At 1,062.46 feet, the ACF’s largest reservoir was still about eight and a half feet below summer full pool of 1,071 feet.
 
Hopes for a rainy spring to replenish the lake in time for summer recreation went unfulfilled in March and most of April. Heading into summer, swim buoy lines at Lake Lanier beaches rested on muddy ground. Access to public boat ramps may become limited if water recedes farther. Swim areas are designated generally within the 1,064 contour, and there is little opportunity to extend swim areas as the lake levels drop, according to the WCM. When the lake level drops to 1,064 feet, no water is left in the swim areas.
 
Boaters must beware of usually submerged tree trunks, shallow coves, rock outcrops and other obstacles hazardous to inattentive captains. Some hazards are permanently marked, but as the lake falls, additional hazards are exposed. The Corps urged lake-goers to use caution at all times.
 
The recently updated ACF water control manual, approved March 30, includes a revised Drought Contingency Plan that initiates drought operations when the federal reservoir projects’ composite conservation storage reaches Zone 3 instead of the lower Zone 4. The Corps attempts to operate its five WCM dams as a balanced system and combines lake level readings to calculate Action Zones. The Action Zones range from Zone 1, with optimal levels to meet ACF water needs, to Zone 4, just above Drought Zone.
 
Lake Lanier has measured predominately in Zone 4 since August 2016, rarely exceeding 1,065 feet at the top of zone’s reach. The drought that has shrunk Lanier is the “main trigger driving the drought operations,” said Lisa Hunter, Corps District Public Affairs Officer.
 
Two other reservoirs on the Georgia-Alabama line, West Point near LaGrange, and Walter F. George, at Eufaula, Ala., reached above normal full pools last month. “It is unusual to initiate drought operations when two of the three reservoirs are full, but doing so provides the opportunity to conserve water as conditions are expected to get worse,” she said.
 
The composite measurements have put the ACF in Zone 3 since Jan. 29 when the Corps announced that drought operations would be initiated this spring if conditions didn’t improve. “By entering drought operations, the minimum flow into the Apalachicola River (in Florida) to protect threatened and endangered species becomes 5,000 cubic feet per second,” Hunter said. “Drought operations improve the likelihood for refilling the reservoirs, while still meeting the habitat requirements for the threatened and endangered species.” The drought plan allows reservoirs to maintain this minimum flow and store all available rainfall, when possible until the basin recovers, she said. The WCM requires that drought plan provisions remain in place until the composite conservation storage reaches Zone 1.
 
Corps’ implementation of the WCM started after Douglas W. Lamont, the Army’s Senior Civil Works Official, signed the document March 30. In a statement, the Corps said “the water control manuals comply with all applicable laws and will govern operations of the five federal dam-and-reservoir projects in the basin under existing congressional authorizations, taking into account changes in basin hydrology and demands from years of growth and development, new and rehabilitated project features, legal developments, water supply uses, and environmental issues.” The Corps considered public comments submitted by the states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, and many other interested stakeholders.
 
“The manuals and accompanying (Environmental Impact Statement) were developed after extensive stakeholder, state and agency input over a period of many years,” Hunter said. “These manuals provide the framework on how the federal projects in the ACF River Basin will be operated.”
 
The manual, which grants Georgia all the water it requested from the ACF, has provoked the ire of Florida officials, who claim it deprives their state of water needed to sustain the ecology and economy of Apalachicola Bay. Florida’s U.S. Congressional delegation has filed bills intended to halt the WCM.

Fla. Rep. Neal Dunn said he introduced two bills to rollback water and river management rules. Ga. Rep. Doug Collins, whose district includes Lake Lanier, told Lakeside News those bills are going nowhere since they would impact water policy in a number of states.
 
The EIS indicates that Apalachicola Bay would sustain mostly the same or worse conditions under the new plan. The bay relies on freshwater coming down the rivers to nourish oyster fisheries, which suffered collapse in the 2008 and 2012 droughts.
 
The Corps maintains that updated manuals conform to the terms and conditions of a Biological Opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 to avoid jeopardy to federally-listed threatened and endangered species in the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay. The Corps also contends that the new drought operations plan will improve the resilience of the system during drought. 

Posted online 5/1/17
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