Despite welcome rain this week, the water level at Clarks Hill Lake is still nearly 15 feet below full pool.
Persistent drought and low lake levels, even in the off-season, take an economic toll on the boating industry and the real estate market for communities surrounding the lake, with Columbia County typically hardest hit.
David White, owner of Augusta Marine in Martinez, is accustomed to a seasonal sales decline as summer comes to an end, but this year his drop began sooner, he said.
“After the kids go back to school you see a depletion in sales, but it seemed to be quicker because of less usage of the lake,” said White, who moved his business from Augusta in August of 2010. “What am I going to do this spring when I need water and I need sales? I need sales to support this big old giant I bought, this monster.”
Travis Hayes, owner of Hayes Marine, has been in his location near Lake Springs since 2007, but the family has been in the business in Augusta for three generations.
“We did notice a dropoff in the usage of stuff in the late fall as the lake really started dropping down more than we would normally see, but we’re a big recreational dealer, we’re renting pontoon boats, etc.,” said Hayes.
While his decline in sales has been barely noticeable, that could change if lake levels don’t improve.
“Now, if the lake stays where it’s at right now, this season would be incredibly challenging because the lake is down and we would have to alter our business to accommodate for it,” said Hayes. “And it’s going to hurt new and used boat sales really more than anything.”
A recent analysis, conducted by Clemson University and the South Carolina Water Resources Center, examined retail activity and lakefront property values and real estate sales from 1998 to 2009 – a period that included multiple drought cycles.
“In general, falling lake levels correlate with fewer real estate sales, while rising lake levels with more sales,” the study found.
Water levels also affect revenue going to local governments.
“The estimated impact on local net revenue in Columbia County is $438,000 per month per foot increase in lake elevation,” the study said.
Lloyd DeFoor, owner of DeFoor Realty in Appling, brokers large numbers of lakefront properties. He said he has seen the economic problems caused by the depleted lake.
“Demand has been down because the lake has been down and the real estate market as a whole has been impacted by the recession that we’ve been in, but lake prices have really tumbled. The drought and the lake being down has had a huge impact on our area.
“Bait and tackles and marinas, they’re struggling. I’ve been here since 1973. I’ve seen it close to this maybe three times. It’s rare when it gets down 15 or more feet.”
A popular place to put boats into the water is Wildwood Park at Keg Creek, with its six-lane “mega ramps” for boats. With fluctuating water levels, the ramps are opened on a day-to-day basis.
“At times we’ve had to close them,” said Jeb Bell, Wildwood Park coordinator. “The longest we’ve had to close them for X amount of days is maybe five to seven days in a row, something like that,” at the end of the year.
And while the Oakley Georgia Big Bass Classic Tournament had to be postponed from last fall to this March, Bell said Wildwood Park hasn’t felt much of a pinch.
“This time of year it hasn’t hurt us that bad, because there aren’t a lot of campers because of the season,” said Bell. “Holidays and things like that, school being back in. It has deterred some people from fishing and coming out to the lake.”
White has become increasingly concerned about the continued low lake levels and recently sent a letter to the Columbia County Board of Commissioners offering to offset the costs of extending docks and boat ramps to make them usable during the drought.
“If they’re going to close it (boat ramps), then it’s a useless piece of property. If you could extend the ramps out five foot... at least customers can put their boats in the water who want to use it.”