In his first time addressing Lake Lanier’s most well-known advocacy group, Maj. Gen. Todd Semonite, commander of the South Atlantic Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, didn’t make many promises to protect Lake Lanier’s levels.
“I’m going to promise that we’re going to [be] up front with you. We’re going to be collaborative. We want to listen to you and we want to tell you what we can do and what we can’t do,” he said at the annual meeting of the Lake Lanier Association in Dawsonville May 18.
Semonite, who took command of the division in 2009, said his job was to follow orders and to balance the needs of the 18 basins he controls.
“We probably can’t give everybody the A-plus solution ... the best you can probably do is about a B-minus for everybody,” Semonite said.
And if a July 2009 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson was not vacated by 2012, Semonite said he would follow orders to restrict water withdrawals from Lake Lanier.
“We want to follow the letter of the law,” Semonite said.
But the candidates in the June 8 runoff to complete Nathan Deal’s U.S. House 9th District term, and those vying for the nomination in the July 20 primary, had bigger promises.
Chickamauga businessman Steve Tarvin, campaigning for the Republican nomination, said Georgia must build reservoirs upstream of Lake Lanier by negotiating with Tennessee for water from the Tennessee River.
He also said Georgians must fight so that Lake Lanier be authorized for recreation and water withdrawals.
To do so, Georgians would have to elect a governor who would be a champion of states’ rights and would reclaim control of water that falls on Georgia, Tarvin said.
“How’s this congressional (reauthorization) thing working out for you? Not too good,” Tarvin said. “And as I heard people talk today ... if we the people are the boss, we need to start acting like the boss.”
Former state Rep. Tom Graves, who faces former state Sen. Lee Hawkins of Gainesville in the runoff, said Magnuson’s ruling threatens Georgians’ way of life.
“I know we’re talking about water consumption; I know we’re talking about recreation, but I think of the lives that have been impacted - the fathers that have taken the children out fishing, the boating trips, the skiing, the teaching that has gone on in addition to what we’re talking about here tonight,” Graves said. “I could have never have imagined ... that because of the ruling of one judge and endangered species, that our way of life is about to be endangered.”
Graves said he would be the “bold voice” in Congress who would write legislation to give local municipalities credit for the water they return to the lake.
Hawkins, said he has fought much of his career to protect Lake Lanier, saying he fought to keep a battery plant from dumping water into the lake. During his time in the state Senate, Hawkins said he passed legislation that would encourage the corps to raise the level of the lake to 1,073 feet above sea level.
He also passed legislation that would allow the corps to release less water from the lake in times of drought.
“I actually met with the assistant secretary of the Army. He didn’t seem particularly interested in raising Lake Lanier up 2 feet. In fact, I don’t’ think he knew much about it and didn’t really care much about it,” Hawkins said. “If you make me your congressman, I’ll be back up there. I’ll be back in his office, and he’s going to hear a lot more about it. I can promise you that.”
State Rep. Bobby Reese, a Suwanee Republican, took issue with Semonite’s comment that it was not the corps’ responsibility to protect the “economic viability” of Lake Lanier’s home values.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me. If you go to Col. Sanders, they say they serve the best chicken. It’s almost like if you go in and ask them about chicken they say: ‘Well, we don’t really serve chicken, it’s just in our mission statement,’” Reese said.
“Well the mission statement says this ... they are to energize the economy and are the nation’s No. 1 provider of outdoor recreation.”
At the end of the forum, Lake Lanier Association Executive Vice President Val Perry thanked the candidates and asked them to continue to fight with the association for the economic viability of the lake if they prevail.
He said the governors of the three states involved in the legal tussle are trying to negotiate their differences over the use of the water flowing from Lake Lanier for the fourth time.
“They are 0-for-3,” Perry said earlier in the meeting.
And deadlines for the most recent effort at negotiations have been pushed back several times, he said.
“Who knows where it’s going to end up,” said Perry. “... It’s very, very tough to try to get something done.”
In addition to the four candidates for the House seat in attendance, three other Republicans had qualified to seek the House seat in the July primary.
Republicans Bert Loftman and Bill Stephens qualified for the race but have suspended their campaigns. Blairsville’s Chris Cates, who also qualified as a Republican for the July 20 primary, is also considering whether he will withdraw his candidacy.