Water Level Drops, Panic Rises In Georgia

Exposed lake bed and beached boat docks are shown at Lake Lanier in Cumming, Ga., Friday, Oct. 12, 2007. Rivers throughout the Southeast are turning to dust, towns are threatening to ration dwindling water supplies and lawmakers are pointing fingers as the region struggles with an epic drought that seems to be getting worse.
Across North Georgia, thousands of people are digging private wells, nervous that their regular water's about to run dry.

"The phone is just ringing off the hook," said Bob Askew, the owner of a well-drilling company. "It's like working at a telethon or something."

Lake Lanier is the region's main source for drinking water. And it's being drained into crisis, CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.

"And here, these are tree stumps," said Val Perry, a resident.

Perry is furious. The lake is so low that entire islands have surfaced.

"And you can see these guys are done," Perry said while boating on the now-shallow lake. "Ooh, see, we just hit something."

Lake Lanier is down 10 feet just this summer. And among five million Georgians, panic is rising.

Without rain, the lake's drinkable water could hit bottom by year's end.

Many of the boats and boaters left weeks ago. The shallow water is why. At the nearly dry spot Strassmann reported from on the lake, he should have been floating in 14 feet of water.

And the level is still dropping another foot every week.

Control of Lake Lanier is now a power struggle.

Georgia's suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake, and drains up to three billion gallons more every day.

Most of it flows south into Alabama and Florida, feeding people, utility plants, even two varieties of mussels protected under the Endangered Species Act.

"We are trying to balance that so that we meet the needs up and down the river," said Col. Ben Butler of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Georgians like Val Perry accuse the Corps of mismanagement, saying it is "irresponsible, arrogant."

Georgia Gov. Sonny Purdue agrees.

"It is nonsensical," he said.

Georgia's suit demands the Corps stop sending so much water out-of-state.

"The public doesn't understand that. And it gives the public little confidence in the ability of the federal government to manage our affairs," Purdue said.

As the lake drains, the crisis deepens.

Rain's in this week's forecast. But this region really needs a downpour for days.

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.