Withlacoochee River sewage spills, Suwannee River Basin flooding study, and Valdosta’s funded plan to fix its problem

Someone referred to the mid-February Old Statenville Road spill in asking:

What’s happening in your watershed? This is the most recent of several sewage overflow issues I’ve been reading about.

Brief answer: this flooding issue is one of many reasons WWALS Watershed Coalition was formed; we’ve been on it since then; the City of Valdosta is being fixed the immediate problem; however there’s a much bigger problem throughout the entire Suwannee River Basin that the Army Corps of Engineers is studying.

Long answer: This has been going on for years, especially starting with the 700-year flood in 2009, which overflowed the City of Valdosta’s Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) and backed up sewage out of manholes, in addition to rivers and streams running over roads and bridges; see this USGS two-pager on that.

Larry Hanson, Valdosta City Manager, presented to the Suwannee-Satilla Regional Water Planning Council in 2010.

Valdosta had repeated flooding in 2013 and 2014, at least one of them was a 500-year flood. A 700-year flood and a 500-year flood separated by a couple of years of drought is enough to get anybody’s attention.

These graphs are for the Alapaha River, but ones for the Withlacoochee River would be quite similar.

Note the Irwinville gauge on the Alapaha River was added after the 2010 flood, as was the GA 122 gauge on the Withlacoochee River that Lowndes County gets funded again annually. Here are live USGS water level charts of all the Little River and Withlacoochee River gauges, which let us see the effects of rains coming downriver.

The wastewater problem got quite notorious, all the way down the Suwannee to the Gulf. They had so many overflows in 2013 from the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant that I lost track.

This issue was one of the many reasons WWALS Watershed Coalition formed, and the very first speaker at a WWALS board meeting after incorporation was Emily Davenport, Valdosta Storm Water Utilities Director. Valdosta City Council Tim Carroll presented an update in 2013.

As Gordon Rogers, Flint Riverkeeper, put it when he spoke to WWALS in 2013, the 2009 rains were not 700 year rains, yet we got a 700 year flood.

Why is that? I think it’s because of too much clearcutting and too much impermeable cover in roads and buildings. Most of the counties and cities in WWALS watersheds now have zoning codes that require water retention ponds and the like, but permeable surfaces are only just being tried by a few places (Valdosta), and many subdivisions and business parking lots were built before those codes were passed. Also we see some places on the rivers where agricultural buffers are less than they might be.

WWALS sometimes writes and presents directly to the Valdosta City Council about potential flooding issues, such as a July 2014 rezoning issue on Baytree Road. They approved that zoning anyway, but they’re aware of that particular zoning issue and claim permitting will handle it; we’ll see.

In 2013 the City of Valdosta called in the Army Corps of Engineers to do a flooding study. Here’s the Corps’ presentation about their first phase study. We’re always following what they’re up to with that, such as at the recent Valdosta City Council retreat in Moultrie. No, they’re not really going to build a levee.

The Corps is working up to doing a second flooding study, this time about the entire Suwannee River Basin. WWALS has been warning everybody downstream in Florida.

And it’s not just Valdosta; Lowndes County has also had at least one major sewage spill.

This flooding wastewater issue was goal #7 for WWALS in 2014, and probably will be a goal again in 2015.

It’s related to Valdosta’s long-term concern about drinking water from our Floridan Aquifer. The same concern that caused Valdosta to add a clause about the Floridan Aquifer to their resolution against the Sabal Trail pipeline.

WWALS has pointed out to Valdosta that if Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) gets implemented on the Flint River, it’s the same aquifer here, and our rivers could be next.

Anyway, Valdosta does have a plan to fix its sewer problems (they’ve bought land and are moving the WWTP uphill; they’re putting in a force main to fix the manhole problems; etc.), it’s funded (via SPLOST, bonds, GEFA loans, etc.), and they’re moving along rapidly on it.

That plan is one of the reasons Valdosta was named “Smart Energy Municipality of the Year” for 2014.

But of course arranging to deal with the increased flood waters doesn’t fix the larger issue of why is more water coming downstream to Valdosta? For that, we need to keep following that USACE Suwannee River Basin flooding study.