Drawdown lessens winter fun at Lake Murray

tflach@thestate.comDecember 9, 2013 

Lower water levels are reducing recreation on Lake Murray this winter.

The seven-foot drop in the past two months is beaching some boaters until spring as coves dry up, making dock repairs easier and forcing tour boats to alter sailing routes.

It’s a drop – the first in seven years – to keep the 47,500-acre lake healthy.

The drawdown is designed to deter the spread of underwater weeds by exposing areas to sunlight and scouring natural contamination primarily from erosion to keep water quality and fishing in good shape.

Lower lake levels turn some coves into mud holes, forcing many homeowners to haul out vessels.

Boaters like Andy Hyman of Chapin are dry-docking themselves until lake levels rise back to normal, expected by late spring.

The drawdown pushes shoals, stumps and other hazards normally well-submerged near the surface of the 83-year-old manmade lake created by flooding a Saluda River valley for hydropower.

“For me, there’s too much danger out there,” said Hyman, president of the Lake Murray Association. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t OK for other people.”

Hyman pulled his two boats ashore at his home, but other boaters are moving their vessels to marinas so they can sail this winter.

Lake Murray Marina in the Ballentine area has leased “a handful” of slots to such boaters, general manager Tammy Wright said.

Some boaters dallied, leaving their watercraft stranded and unusable until the lake rises.

“I didn’t catch it in time, but it’s all right,” Frank Hemphill said of his sailboat, which is stuck offshore in a cove in Ballentine

The drawdown also is allowing staff at Lake Murray Marina to remove debris now visible on its shoreline, Wright said.

Members of the Columbia Sailing Club near Irmo are putting up new markers to guide boats in shallow areas nearby and making other minor repairs that are impossible to do when the lake is higher, club commodore Richard Leaphart said.

“It’s things you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do otherwise,” he said.

Dock builders are in demand, a job easier when the lake is lower.

“There’s definitely a spike in calls for repairs,” said Bill Mitchell, owner of Breakwater Docks in Chapin. “Homeowners are noticing things that need attention.”

Lower levels also change how the lake’s pair of tour boats operate.

“It hasn’t affected what we do significantly, but we do our homework before we go out,” said Joy Downs, general manager of the Southern Patriot.

Some passengers can’t be picked up on their docks and cruising happens mainly in the middle of the lake, she said.

The drawdown has been a bigger headache for the Spirit of Lake Murray, whose operators are experiencing low water for the first time.

It’s forced them to move their launch site, creating confusion among passengers and adding an unexpected expense for new tie-up facilities, owner Ken Colton said.

In addition, lower water puts some popular viewing spots off-limits, leading to cancellation of a few cruises, he said.

“You’ve got to be very careful where you go,” Colton said. “You have to be sure what’s under you.”

This drawdown is less drastic than the last one in 2006 for dam improvements.

Lake levels this time aren’t low enough for graveyards to appear and for bridge footings and tops of long-flooded buildings to be visible under water, as occurred last time.

But it’s still a change of pace for boaters and sightseers alike, Leaphart said.

“It looks different with the lake down,” he said.

The drawdown occurs when boating is slowest.

Lake levels will be kept low until January and then allowed to refill through rain to its traditional level shortly before boating resumes full-blast in late spring.

If the refill takes longer than expected due to less rain, boating is possible in most coves when the lake rises four feet from the level at which it sits today.

Colton knows periodic drawdowns – environmental experts suggest one every three or four years – are vital so a lake that’s a major source of Midlands drinking water and fishing remains healthy.

His only complaint is the one-month notice that the lake would start dropping Nov. 1 is insufficient.

South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., the lake’s operator, announced the drawdown Oct. 4 after consulting lake groups and state natural resources officials.

Officials at the Cayce-based utility say that’s ample warning, adding that persistent drought delayed the drawdown for many months.

Colton said a six-month notice would be best. “They didn’t give us much lead time to prepare.”

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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