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How one group’s efforts might have saved some Lake Lanier islands from disappearing
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Lake Lanier Association executive director Jennifer Flowers visits some islands in Lake Lanier with Rich York Tuesday, June 16, 2020, to inspect new rip rap placed around the island to stop erosion. The Association's 2-year effort to restore Lake Lanier's many islands, which had been eroding from waves caused by passing boats, finished in May. - photo by Scott Rogers

A two-year effort that may have stopped seven of Lake Lanier’s distinctive islands from eventually disappearing was finished in May.

The Lake Lanier Association, with the funding help of governments and others, spent nearly $500,000 putting riprap, or heavy rocks, around the islands dotting the 38,000-acre lake. The rocks were placed along heavily eroded areas, which had turned into sheer cliffs exposing red dirt and sediment.

When done, 9,600 tons of stone were used to armor the islands. In all, the rocks were placed on 6,100 feet, or more than a mile, of shoreline. Contractors on the project were Marine Specialties and Boat Dock Works of Gainesville.

As water filled the lake built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s, the remains of homes and roads were submerged, but hilltops remained. Those hilltops would become islands , a scenic spot for boaters to throw down anchors and explore.

But through the years, the islands’ shorelines also got battered by the wakes of passing boats.

The idea to fix the islands took root in 2014 and started with some repairs in 2015, according to Rich York, Lake Lanier Association board member and project manager.

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A 2-year effort by the Lake Lanier Association, Hall and Gwinnett counties, private businesses and the Army Corps of Engineers to restore Lake Lanier's many islands, which had been eroding from waves caused by passing boats, finished in May - photo by Scott Rogers

“It’s a process,” York said during a boat tour given The Gainesville Times earlier this week. “As you look almost anywhere on the lake, there’s shoreline erosion. There are lots of spots that need help and it’s not realistic to think … you’re going to be able to cure everything.

“We tried to do the worst (conditions) first. The other position the association has taken is that, for all the (lake’s) perimeter shoreline, for the most part you’ve got abutting property owners … who have a vested interest in protecting the shoreline right there – and many folks do.”

“When you look at the islands,” York said, “there’s nobody who claims ownership or feels responsibility, and that’s where we decided to focus.”

The two-year effort – the latest phase of the overall effort -- focused on three islands near the Old Federal Park campground and four in the Three Sisters Islands chain, or the southern part of Lake Lanier.

“This is a very high traffic area of the lake,” York said.

The total number of islands that have been fixed so far is 12 – or some 2 miles of shoreline -- at a cost approaching $1 million. The lake has some 30 islands.

Saving the islands wasn’t just a matter of preserving the scenery or its historic past, officials said.

“As more and more of the shoreline erodes and falls into the lake, these areas between the islands become shallower and less usable for safe recreation,” the association said in a recent press release. “There are some areas on the lake where the entire island has disappeared as a result of constant erosion.”

A couple of islands are almost completely underwater, bearing hazard makers warning passing boaters.

“The loss of these islands is not only a loss for recreation, but the sediment added to the lake reduces the storage capacity for drinking water storage,” the association said.

The islands aren’t less accessible because of the heavy rocks, York said.

Visitors “couldn’t have climbed the banks when they were exposed,” he said, adding that the rocks weren’t placed on islands’ natural beach areas.

York said, “This project is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished for the lake through joint partnerships. Each funding partner could not afford to complete this work alone. However, together we were able to protect these islands from disappearing completely.”

Future projects are being considered, but that means new funding and identifying the neediest shorelines.

One thing that officials feel confident about is boat traffic on Lanier is not likely to subside.

“Shoreline erosion will continue to be a concern for Lake Lanier in the coming years,” the association said.