Commissioners from Cobb and Cherokee counties, Congressional aides, state representatives, Lake Allatoona Preservation Authority members and area residents participated as well.
Lake Allatoona Association Chairman Sean Nicholl saw the tour as a chance for every county or city tied to the lake to gather for discussions on how to improve and protect the lake.
While the nonprofit’s previous efforts have focused on the Great Lake Allatoona Cleanup, a project it took over from the LAPA, Nicholl said they were ready to take on a second project — acquiring a greater say for local residents in maintaining Lake Allatoona’s water levels.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the amount of water in the lake at a given time. According to Mike Bearden, an LAA director, guidelines and formulas set in the 1950s are used to determine how high the water level is set, when the USACE starts lowering the water level and how low the lake is kept during winter months.
The association has a plan called “2-4-6-8 Allatoona Clean” that calls for a two-foot increase in the water level during summer, holding that water level four weeks longer than under the current plan, starting the level reduction six weeks earlier and drawing the water level down to eight feet during the winter.
Nicholl and other LAA directors believed the higher water levels, maintained for a longer period of time, would benefit every county or city dependent on the lake.
“We’ve got a potential reservoir,” Nicholl said. “The state keeps talking about spending tens and hundreds and millions of dollars building new reservoirs that are very difficult to buy the property and gain permits [for] and appropriate environmental protections against all that. Well, all you have to do here is increase the level one foot and you’d have 12,000 acre feet [of water].”
Throughout the tour, Nicholl and his board members pointed out ragged or collapsed areas where the shoreline had given way and slid into the lake. A number of trees on shore and on small islands had fallen over because erosion removed the soil around their roots. A higher water level, Nicholl said, would reduce erosion.
The higher water levels, Nicholl believed, could also improve the local economy.
“I mean, there’s nobody here,” he said as he gestured at empty boat ramps. “The ramps get closed. The restaurants can’t work. People’s properties go down in value significantly. It’s not just about recreation, [or] just water quality, it’s a holistic view.”
Raising the water level received support from many Bartow County officials, including Brown.
“They should keep the lake level higher,” he said. “Somehow, some way, they should get that changed. I mean, why should they send that much water down the Etowah River? There’s plenty of water down in Rome. There’s plenty of water down in Alabama. There’s no reason for this.”
While Bearden, who has a background in engineering, supports raising the water level, he also emphasized the lake’s original purpose: flood prevention.
“We need all remind ourselves, and we do, that the reason this lake is here, though, is safety. In 1948, when it was conceived, or in that rough time period, Atlanta hardly existed. Cartersville was just a small little burg. The only significant town around here was Rome, and Rome was being flooded too often. ... Allatoona Dam is here to keep Rome from being flooded. That is its primary use,” he said.
However, Bearden believed it was possible to increase the lake’s level without any risk of damaging the dam or flooding Rome. He thought the dam was constructed well enough to take the additional pressure and, while referencing previous events at the dam, knew the lake’s water level could be lowered to its current level in one week.
The only obstacle, he said, to raising the water level were the series of guidelines written in the 1950s that are still in effect. Those guidelines are concerned only with safety and, according to Bearden, are designed to stay within a “risk envelope” designating how high or low the lake must be to keep Rome safe. The guidelines do not take into account using the lake as a source of drinking water, recreation or any other use. That is something Bearden said he wanted to see changed.
“What we’re talking about is we want them to do a study to evaluate the 60 years of weather history we have now and recognize the risk envelope that was used for Allatoona Dam’s design has been infinitely safer and we’re not going to threaten Rome by making any minor changes,” he said.