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The dock for this house shows how far the water level at Smith Lake has dropped. The sandbars are a hazard for watercraft.
Daily photos by John Godbey
The dock for this house shows how far the water level at Smith Lake has dropped. The sandbars are a hazard for watercraft.

A shrinking lake
Smith Lake

Frustrations worsen as water disappears; problems impacting economy, man says

By Bayne Hughes · 340-2432

ADDISON — Businessman and developer Rusty Banks is planning a frustration sale.

He’s getting rid of a park, his two marinas, including one with a hotel and a 350-seat restaurant, and about five miles of shoreline he owns on Smith Lake.

Banks is so frustrated with Alabama Power and Smith Lake’s low water levels that he is selling everything but a small parcel of lakefront property he plans to use for personal enjoyment.

He complained about water levels last September, but he said this year has been worse. He refunded hotel deposits in early August. The hotel is usually full through Labor Day. His restaurant isn’t closed, but the summer profit season is over.

“I’m getting away from it,” said Banks, who said he might look at investing in properties on the Gulf Coast.

15 feet below average

Rusty Banks is concerned about the low water level at Smith Lake, which has left many boaters high and dry.
Rusty Banks is concerned about the low water level at Smith Lake, which has left many boaters high and dry.
The 21,200-acre Smith Lake is down to 495.3 feet, a level not normally seen until early December. That’s almost 15 feet below average. The lake has not reached full pool — 510 feet — this year, falling short at 508 in May before a steady plunge during summer.

This usually deep, clear lake looks like someone pulled a drain plug. The water’s edge creeps lower and the bottom is visible in numerous places. At least three federal parks on the lake are closed.

A few boathouses and docks are sitting on sand, but the number is expected to swell in the coming weeks.

Alabama Power blames the drought and heat. The National Weather Service said the Huntsville area is 19.27 inches behind normal since Jan. 1, while Birmingham is 17.51 behind.

The power company had to cut reservoir releases to the minimum required by its federal hydroelectric project licenses to maintain navigation, fisheries and habitat. The company asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to further reduce its minimum flows.

Michael Sznajderman, Alabama Power media relations representative, said water problems are an issue at all six of the company’s feeder lakes.

“We are in an extreme drought of such intensity that’s never been seen before,” Sznajderman said. “This is a record-setting drought and all of our in-flows have been affected.”

It has also been hot. Birmingham suffered through 14 days of 100-plus degree temperatures, including nine straight days, during August. Alabama Power needed the usually cooler Smith Lake water to make the Warrior River cool enough to chill the Gorgas steam plant’s generators.

Waiting on impact study

Boat docks are far from the water at Smith Lake.
Boat docks are far from the water at Smith Lake.
The effects of the low water on the area’s economy are not known. Smith Lake’s popularity ballooned after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as many began looking for vacation spots away from the coast.

Banks is waiting on the results of an economic impact study, but he said he’s expecting that it will say the area is losing about $100 million a year due to the low water. Winston County Revenue Commissioner Sandre Wright said her county’s tax revenues haven’t been affected.

Real estate agents who deal with Smith Lake properties said business has slowed in the past month.

“I think the economy probably affects it a little more because nationally there’s a lot of talk about housing starts being down and mortgage rates rising,” said Becky Gray, an agent with BJC Real Estate in Hanceville.

“I haven’t had anyone tell me they’re selling because they’re frustrated with the water problems,” Gray continued.

Pam Wade, an agent with White Pepper in Jasper, said she hasn’t seen a change in sales, but people are more cautious. The low water is particularly a problem in the areas off the main channel.

“Some of these used to be year-round areas, but now they’re seasonal,” Wade said. “We warn them (potential buyers) that water fluctuates, but they can’t comprehend, and they don’t understand and then they’re shocked (when it gets so low).”

Doesn’t accept excuse

Banks doesn’t accept Alabama Power’s drought and heat excuse. He thinks the company could build a cooling tower for the Gorgas plant that would solve everyone’s problems. Smith Lake would then become a stable body of water on which stakeholders could depend, but that would cost from $85 million to $190 million.

Sznajderman said that’s not feasible for the power company if it wants to provide reasonable electricity rates for its customers.

Banks visited the state’s congressmen, local state legislators and the Alabama Public Service Commission. He would like them to curb Alabama Power’s power and make the company stabilize the water.

“They’ve become so arrogant and aggressive since the problem came to light last year,” Banks said.

Banks said the state or federal government could help the company build the cooling tower.

Sznajderman said that’s not feasible because state and federal officials wouldn’t consider underwriting a privately funded company.

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