Cleaner at Okapilco and Piscola Creeks and Withlacoochee River 2020-01-29

Update 2020-02-03: Rivers maybe finally clean after Valdosta sewage: but Okapilco Creek and need weekly testing 2020-01-31

Good news: the Withlacoochee River tested clean Wednesday. Still puzzling: Okapilco Creek did not. Where is the contamination coming from? What about Valdosta? How can you help?

[Ducks with reference human]
Photo: John S. Quarterman, Ducks with reference human, Josh Tison, at Piscola Creek under the Old Madison Road bridge in Brooks County, Georgia, 2020-01-29.

We have results from Lowndes County and from WWALS for January 29, 2020. Lowndes County still shows an elevated count of 378.4 cfu/100 mL E. coli on Okapilco Creek at the (old) Bray property, downstream of US 84, but upstream of Piscola Creek.

[2020-01-22 -- 2020-01-29]
2020-01-22 — 2020-01-29 testing results from Lowndes County and WWALS.
The entire WWALS composite spreadsheet of testing results is on the WWALS website.
So are the Lowndes County results.

At US 84 on Okapilco Creek I got 66, and at GA 76 farther upstream Lowndes County got 95.9. As also indicated by previous results, whatever is getting into Okapilco Creek seems to be occuring downstream of US 84.

I even tested a new site on Piscola Creek at Old Madison Road, for 100 cfu/100 mL, despite gathering water downstream of dead ducks in the creek. Thanks to Josh Tison for pointing out that location. Piscola Creek runs into Okapilco Creek downstream of where Lowndes County is testing on the Bray property, so even if the Piscola Creek count had been high, it couldn’t have been the cause of the elevated Okapilco Creek county. The Piscola Creek result does illustrate that even dead animals in the water don’t necessarily result in elevated counts.

All those results, and Lowndes County and WWALS results that day on the Withlacoochee River, are well within EPA and GA-EPD and Georgia Adopt-A-Stream limits. See What do these numbers mean?

So what caused the high counts Suzy Hall got at Knights Ferry and State Line Boat Ramps on the Withlacoochee River on Sunday, January 26? We don’t know, but whatever it was apparently already went downstream or got diluted by Wednesday. It will be very interesting to see if any Florida testing saw it.

Sara Jay drew more water upstream yesterday, and we should have her results later today.

Where is the contamination coming from?

Does it look like the recent contamination may have come from somewhere else than Valdosta? Yes.

Where, then? We still don’t know. There are cows next to US 84 east of Okapilco Creek, and the creek does bend east back behind there.

However, the obvious big suspect is the Quitman Land Application Site (LAS), which is just downstream of US 84 on the west (right bank) of Okapilco Creek. Quitman has not reported any spills in a long time, but maybe something is running off or leaking they don’t know about. We will continue investigating.

What about Valdosta?

Does this mean Valdosta is off the hook? No.

Has Valdosta been doing any testing on Okapilco Creek or Piscola Creek? No.

Or even testing the Withlacoochee River downstream of Sugar Creek? Only once a month, so far as we know, and it takes an open records request to get that out of Valdosta.

Of the various agencies that are testing, Lowndes County, FDEP, FDOH, SRWMD, WWALS, and Valdosta, which is the only one that is not freely sharing data? Valdosta.

The Florida Counties Task Force is calling on its state legislative delegation and FDEP to fund ongoing at least weekly testing. Has Valdosta agreed to do weekly testing or to fund it? No.

Will the long-term reputational damage to our rivers, the stigma, as Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson dubbed it; will that stigma be removed by just waiting to see how long it takes Valdosta to spill again? No.

It has come to my attention that some people within the Valdosta city government may think that this stigma is because of me, personally, or because of WWALS. Well, I’m flattered, but they must not have been paying attention for the past many decades of Valdosta sewage spills. WWALS is spending so much time on this topic (for example, me, personally, two hours Wednesday to write up previous results and four hours to collect more samples) that we have been neglecting other topics from titanium mines to reporting on our own paddles because our members demand it.

I’d also like to see Valdosta’s own press releases about the Mayor’s Paddle or about better testing results lately, or even Valdosta’s own testing results on its own website. But none of that is there. Maybe, as Valdosta resident Tom Potter (who is also the WWALS Science Committee Chair) suggested on January 8th, Valdosta could improve communications with its own citizens by using its website to communicate.

Improve communication w Valdosta citizens and taxpayers –Tom Potter, Valdosta res.

      Improve communication w Valdosta citizens and taxpayers --Tom Potter, Valdosta res.


Which organization has been publishing all that, and got two reporters to paddle with the Mayor, resulting in much news coverage, including on the front page of the Valdosta Daily Times, which I waved in front of the Task Force in Lake City and then the entire North Central Florida Regional Planning Council? WWALS; Suwannee Riverkeeper.

Is that enough to remove the stigma? No.

What will remove that stigma? In my opinion, only ongoing testing, at least weekly, at all or at least most of the spots tested since this December 2019 Valdosta record-largest raw sewage spill. Plus on the Alapaha, the upper Suwannee, and the Santa Fe River.

Results published in a timely manner, where everyone can easily see them and understand them.

Lowndes County, which has its own sewer system, which did not spill, has stepped up to testing weekly. My understanding is that if the Lowndes results continue clean, the county will cease testing after a few more weeks. That’s understandable, since it’s a cost, and Lowndes County did not cause this problem. But somebody needs to keep testing all those sites at least weekly.

Who should pay for all that testing? I think Valdosta should. As by far the largest city in the entire Suwannee River Basin, and for decades by far the largest spiller of sewage into our waterways, I think Valdosta has a responsibility to step up and pay for the long-term fix.

That and we heard many people at the Florida counties Task Force meeting with Valdosta on January 8th say that Valdosta should pay for the governmental and personal costs incurred due to this last and previous spills, from well testing to medical.

It’s great that Valdosta has battery and generator power backup, is fixing its stormwater infiltration problem faster, is remediating manholes faster, and the long-awaited catch basin for input to the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) is permitted and presumably will be operational soon. But remember Valdosta is paying for most of that via the penny SPLOST sales tax, and Valdosta brags that half of that comes from people from elsewhere. Including downstream in Brooks County, Georgia, and Hamilton, Madison, and Suwannee Counties, Florida, not to mention all the other Florida and Georgia counties that are affected by this sewage stigma all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, and even upstream.

Valdosta has responsibilities. Will it accept them?

You Can Help

You can help WWALS test water quality by donating to our WWALS water quality testing program. Or maybe you know a bank or other source of larger financial support.

[Suzy with a Petrifilm]
Suzy Hall with a Petrifilm.
Each bacterial test costs $6 for Petrifilms alone.
WWALS is spending about $40 a day on Petrifilms and other materials after this Valdosta spill.

Maybe you want to get trained and help test; if so, follow this link.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

You can join this fun and work by becoming a WWALS member today!