Archived Story

Lower rainfall, higher pool

Published 11:24am Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Editor’s note: This article is the fourth in a series on the current drought and its continuing effects on the community.

Local drought conditions have brought many unwanted issues to the Lake Martin area this year – failing crops, poor hunting conditions and an increased vulnerability to wildfires.

However, one result of the drought has brought few complaints from local residents: a higher winter pool for Lake Martin.

As previously reported, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued an order Nov. 23 approving Alabama Power’s request for a drought-based temporary amendment for Martin Dam. The order allows Alabama Power to maintain the Martin Reservoir elevation at 483 feet until March 1, 2012 – a three-foot higher elevation than the rule curve specified elevation of 480.

Jim Crew, manager of hydro services at Alabama Power, told The Outlook in November that the drought management tool was requested after the company received weather projections that La Nina would likely be worse than last year, meaning the lake was in for a warmer and drier winter.

“Increasing the winter water level by three feet this year because of the continuing drought will help Alabama Power refill the lake next spring, unlike what the area experienced in 2007, when the lake never reached full pool because of the drought,” Jesse Cunningham, president of the Lake Martin Home Owners Boat Owners Association (HOBOs), said Monday.

According to Alabama Power, the temporary variance will allow the company to store additional water precipitation, which will help fill the reservoir to the

normal spring and summer impoundment elevations, and allow the company to provide adequate downstream flows during the critical summer period to benefit navigation, recreation and water quality.

Brandon Glover, spokesperson for Alabama Power, said the company has not received any negative filings against the variance requests, nor have they heard complaints from any stakeholders. As for revenue lost by not generating power, he said it’s “kind of a wash.”

“The variance is designed to put us in a good position for operations in the spring with the expectance of lower rainfall this winter,” he said. “So while we’re not able to generate now, at the same time, we won’t be raising it back that three feet in the spring. So it evens out.”

Charles Borden, president of the Lake Martin Resource Association (LMRA), said Monday he is very pleased to have the additional winter water. In fact, he said he hasn’t talked to anyone who isn’t “very happy” with it. John Thompson, vice president of LMRA, agreed with Borden.

“It’s great aesthetically, because the ones in the shallow sloughs have water now,” Thompson said. “I’ve heard nothing but positive comments. Not only does it make the lake look good, but also, it has extended the boating season. The only complaints I have heard are from people who like to look for arrowheads and other things while walking the shorelines in the winter.”

John Coley, a broker and owner of Lake Martin Voice Realty, said that the extra water gives the area an economic boost as well.

“Any time we have higher water, more people hang around,” Coley said.

Coley said it’s hard to tell just how big of an impact that the water level will have on the real estate market, but he expects to start seeing the benefits around January and February.

“I’m driving away from a closing right now, and it’s always an odyssey to have a closing in the winter,” he said. “In real estate, contracts take five or six weeks to close, so people who are buying now, their contracts will be closing then. It’s hard to put a number on it. People buy property for different reasons – but having more water definitely helps.”

Borden said the only negative side effect he can see is that the water could potentially be hiding some of the debris left by the April 27 tornado. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed its mission to rid Lake Martin of the debris on July 25, but the lake’s recent winter drawdown recently shed new light on the aftermath of the storm.

“The increased water level is a mixed bag because of the tornado,” Borden said. “Because the water is three feet higher this winter, it’s not allowing all of the debris that might be – and I emphasize the word might – that might be under that three feet of water.”

Cunningham agreed, and said that he fears more debris lies below the surface of the water.

“We appreciate the effort made by the state to clean up the lake waters after the tornado in April, but now that the water is down additional debris is visible and much more debris lies just below the surface,” he said. “Several debris sites have been brought to our attention by homeowners and we have forwarded the GPS coordinates to the proper authorities. We have concerns about the potential pollutants that remain in the debris.”

The HOBOs and LMRA also both said that while they are pleased with the additional three feet this winter, they still want FERC to consider increasing the winter level even more when they finalize Alabama Power’s Martin Dam relicensing agreement. Alabama Power is proposing to raise the winter level by three feet in its proposal.

“We want four feet or five,” Borden said. “The modeling done by the power company, five is not supported, but four feet and three feet are supported by the modeling. We’ve discussed this with the power company, and four feet is just as doable as three feet and we will provide information to FERC to encourage that they consider four feet for the permanent relicensing.”

According to Cunningham, a study conducted by Alabama Power in 2009 shows that “very few homeowners can get their boats to their docks when the lake is at 480 feet, but 29 percent would be able to dock their boat at 483 feet.”

“If the winter level were increased to 485 feet, as proposed by the Lake Martin HOBOs, a whopping 76 percent of homeowners will be able to dock their boats during the winter drawdown, and this translates into additional lake visits, increased spending and a better economy for the whole lake area.”