By Jeff Gill
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins came with a load of questions -- some pointed -- as he toured Buford Dam on Tuesday morning, accompanied by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials, and surveyed the waters of the nearly full Lake Lanier.
For the Gainesville Republican, the trip was serious business, not just a stop by the lake on a cold, windy day.
"I want to make sure the corps understands that I'm active, that I'm not going to simply view this from afar and talk by memos and phones," said Collins, who was elected in November to his first term as the 9th District representative.
"I'm a hands-on kind of person and we're doing this to begin conversations."
He fired questions on several key issues, including the corps' management of downstream flows and the long-debated proposal of raising the summer full pool by 2 feet, or to 1,073 feet above sea level.
Early in the tour, Collins spent a few moments asking officials about water levels and releases in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, which runs from Lake Lanier on the northern end to the Gulf of Mexico.
The corps decided in early March to suspend drought operations because of rising waters in its lakes.
Lanier stood at 1,069.42 feet Tuesday evening, or just inches below the winter full pool of 1,070 feet. It is up nearly 13 feet over its elevation three months ago.
Releases at Peachtree Creek on the Chattahoochee River will remain at a reduced level until April 30, corps officials have said. The summer full pool of 1,071 feet takes effect May 1.
"This rain has recovered all of our lakes," said the corps' Mobile District spokesman, Patrick Robbins, to Collins.
After hearing numbers about releases and such, Collins asked, "If the wildlife can survive and flourish in dry operations, then why do you need to go back up?"
"There are two issues here -- one is the endangered mussels and one is the gulf sturgeon," Robbins said. "The sturgeon are not there in the summertime. It comes in the spring to spawn, and water levels have to be higher to cover the areas where it spawns."
"What is the population of the sturgeon?" Collins asked.
"I really don't know, sir," Robbins said.
"Well, how much more (water) do they actually need?" Collins asked.
He pressed harder, asking whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said a higher amount is needed for the sturgeon's survival or "the preferred level, instead of the drought level."
"I don't know the answer to that question," Robbins said.
"OK, I'll find those out," Collins said.
Later, while viewing a wide swath of the lake, Collins asked about the effects of having the 1,073-foot level, which has been pushed by lake advocates, including the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association.
"It would have a pretty big impact on marinas," said Chris Lovelady, assistant operations project manager at Lake Lanier. "We may have to redo master plans, environmental assessments -- costly things, but overcomeable."
Also, with 1,073 as full pool, extremely heavy rains could the push the water level to 1,075 feet above sea level, "and if you stay there a long time, you're going to have significant issues behind (riprap) walls ... and it can be pretty costly," Lovelady said.
Collins said, "There's also the environmental impact when (the lake) gets back low and then it comes back up like this."
After the tour, Collins reflected on the need for such a visit. He said he committed to voters that "we're going to be dealing with water issues and we're going to try to push for answers."
"One of my philosophies in life is you don't move a fence until you know why the fence was put up," he said.