More than 300 people packed the Belair Conference Center on Wednesday to hear details about the Corps of Engineers' proposal to conserve water in Clarks Hill Lake by further reducing flows into the Savannah River.
Col. Roger Gerber, the corps' district commander, told his audience that recent rains have elevated the drought-parched reservoir more than 10 feet - to near-normal winter levels.
Drought conditions, however, could return.
"The long-range picture is not rosy," he said, noting that the Corps still plans to revise its Drought Contingency Plan created in the 1980s.
Under that plan, flows from Clarks Hill into the Savannah River are reduced to 3,600 cubic feet per second during severe drought. That volume is the historical minimum needed to satisfy downstream users who depend on the river for drinking water and wastewater dilution.
The Corps' proposed revision, however, would allow cutting minimum flows even farther - to 3,000 cubic feet per second - when water levels fall to critical levels at the 70,000-acre lake.
That reduction could cause problems, according to some downstream users.
"We'd like to see the lake just as full as it can be," Augusta Mayor Bob Young told Gerber. "But these revisions shouldn't be to the detriment of the environment or the water users of Augusta."
Mayor Young said the city gets 70 percent of its drinking water from the river and the Augusta Canal, both of which could be affected by further flow reductions.
Also present at the meeting were representatives from Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, which regulates the myriad of industries that use the river as a conduit for wastewater disposal.
Other entities represented included Congressional offices, Augusta's chamber of commerce, the S.C. Department of health and Environmental Control, Columbia County, the Augusta Canal Authority and many others.
Gerber reminded everyone that the Corps operates the lake for multiple purposes that include hydropower, recreation, flood control - and water quality and supply needs downstream. "When it gets dry, some of these are more important than others," he said.
The Corps will continue to accept comments through Jan. 31 on its plan to revise its drought strategy. A decision on how best to proceed will be made later in the year, he said.
Details of the planned revision are available online at http://www.sas.usace.army.mil.
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