Boaters return to Upstate lakes

Published online: May 05, 2009 News

Two months ago, David Freeman, owner of Portman Marina, couldn't operate his gas dock. Lake Hartwell was so low he had to move it and store it in a deeper cove. Boats were leaving the 500-slip marina as the lake dried up. Traffic in the two restaurants was slow.

Projections put Lake Hartwell 18 feet low for the summer. Freeman worried about making payroll.

Now, Hartwell is less than five feet below full pool, back to a level last seen in the summer of 2007. It's "business as usual," even in a recession, Freeman said.

Freeman said people are staying home and enjoying themselves on the lake in lieu of vacations because of the economy. All because the lake is back, he said.

Real estate activity on the lake also is increasing with lake levels, said Mike Gray, broker at Hartwell Lake Properties. The economy certainly is a factor in real estate sales, but the state of the waterfront is critical as well.

"The economy on our lake suffers terribly when the lake goes down," Gray said.

Mike Massey, chairman of the 2,000-member Lake Hartwell Association's South Carolina Legislative Committee, recently took his family for a pontoon ride on his father's 90th birthday. The dramatic change in lake levels and activity gave him added reason for celebration.

"Some of the larger boats were back in their docks. It was very pleasing to see everything looking like it was going back to normal," Massey said.

"The big concern is what do you do now," Massey said. "The lake is up, how do you keep it up?"

The Lake Hartwell Association is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to encourage more flexible management of the lakes and also is supporting legislative efforts to create a comprehensive water plan and basin management councils for the state.

A new organization, Lake Hartwell 660 Coalition, also is calling for changes to the Corps' lake management plan to help prevent the kind of drop in the water level seen this past year.

The name of the 660 Coalition refers to Hartwell's full pool level of 660 feet above mean sea level. The group has scheduled an organizational meeting Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Hart County High School in Hartwell, Ga.

"If Lake Hartwell were at full pool today, it would be no less vulnerable to the next dry weather cycle or lake level management philosophy," said Gray, one of the organizers of the 660 group. "Any plan update must reflect lessons learned from the current drought situation."

Lake levels rose in Hartwell as a result of significant rain and Corps action to reduce releases and then stop releases from Hartwell. Releases resumed last week.

Billy Birdwell, a Corps spokesman, said discharges resumed when water temperature rose to a point that triggers large mouth bass spawning. The goal is to try to hold all three Upstate Corps lakes as steady as possible and avoid any big drops that would expose the fish eggs.

Because downstream needs were being met from Thurmond while water was being retained in Hartwell, Thurmond needs more water to meet that goal, Birdwell said.

"A good spawning season 2009 means a good fishing season in 2011," Birdwell said.

While grassroots groups are calling for more flexible lake management practices, Birdwell said the Corps is taking action in that direction. The Corps is moving forward with an environmental assessment that will allow a reduction in flow earlier this winter, beginning in October and running through January and possibly February.

The outlook for Hartwell through the summer is "optimistic" compared to predictions several months ago, Birdwell said.

The Corps is discharging 3,600 cubic feet per second through the Thurmond dam and "holding there for now," Birdwell said.

Under its lake management plan, the Corps is allowed to increase releases to 4,000 cubic feet per second but has chosen not to do so in order to better conserve water in the lakes, Birdwell said.

"We are just being cautious. We don't know whether the drought is over yet or not. We believe we can still hold at 3,600 without having a detrimental effect on the environment or other uses of the reservoirs," Birdwell said.

All boat ramps and public recreation areas are opening as usual for the season. However, Birdwell advised boaters to continue to watch for submerged objects close to the surface. Although the lake is higher, it still is not full.

The Upstate remains in moderate drought, according to the state Climatologist's Office.

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