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

Update 2020-02-04: Clean Withlacoochee, Okapilco Creek (mostly), and Little River 2020-02-02.

More good news: the Withlacoochee River above the Little River Confluence tested zero (0) for E. coli on Friday, for the first time since Valdosta’s record-largest raw sewage spill. If this good news continues, eventually WWALS (and Lowndes County) will take down our warning signs at Knights Ferry, Nankin, and State Line Boat Ramps.

Testing continues by WWALS volunteers and Lowndes County, Georgia. Please continue to be cautious in your interaction with the Withlacoochee until we get clean readings for a prolonged period.

But we still need to find out what is the source of the contamination Lowndes County keeps finding in Okapilco Creek downstream of US 84. Okapilco Creek demonstrates that testing after a spill is not good enough: we need ongoing, at least weekly, testing.

If you’re going to paddle, swim, or fish in one of our rivers, wouldn’t you want to know what the latest test results are? I know I would.

[Green upstream Withlacoochee]
Photo: Scotti Jay, of green water upstream from the Little River Confluence on the Withlacoochee River, December 21, 2019.
It’s back to its usual tea color now.
The entire WWALS composite testing results spreadsheet is on the WWALS website.

That January 31 Confluence result is from WWALS tester Sara Jay.

WWALS testers Suzy Hall and Conn and Trudy Cole pulled samples yesterday (Sunday, February 2) from multiple locations on the Withlacoochee River, Okapilco Creek, and the Little River. Lowndes County continues testing for at least several weeks, so we’ll see more from them after Wednesday. The Florida agencies stopped testing after the third Florida advisory was lifted.

[Valdosta to Dowling Park, Withlacoochee & Suwannee Rivers]
Valdosta to Dowling Park, Withlacoochee & Suwannee Rivers in WWALS map of all public landings and boat ramps in the Suwannee River Basin.

However, FDEP did detect one significant human DNA sample. FDEP’s Katrina Yanceywrote to multiple parties on Friday, January 31, 2020:

The last day of sampling before the advisory was lifted was on January 23, so we do not have any additional bacteria results to report. The remaining results for the human genetic marker (HF183) have now all been reviewed and authorized so I updated the attached spreadsheet with this data. We still have not seen any strong detections of the human genetic marker. All but one result have been U-qualified indicating the marker was not detected. There was one result in the new data on 1/22/20 that was just above the method detection limit but still below the practical quantitation limit (I-qualified). This means that this is a very low level detection of the marker, and there is very low confidence that it is a true detection. Due to the high sensitivity of the lab method (quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR), the human genetic marker is detected from all Bacteroides cells, live or dead. Bacteroides are anaerobic organisms and don’t survive for long in aerobic conditions (surface waters in this case). Therefore the lab considers this a detection, however with it being so close to our detection limit the confidence is very low.

The spreadsheet she sent is on the WWALS website. I have not integrated the new FDEP column labeled “HF183 DNA marker (GEU/100mL)1” into the composite WWALS spreadsheet.

Three or four waves of this sewage spill

High levels of E. coli may have finally ended, two months after Valdosta spilled 7.5 million gallons of raw sewage into Sugar Creek, apparently on December 3, 2019 (it took Valdosta about four days to notice). The sewage stuck mostly in the creek for more than a week, due to very low water levels.

A benefit of this episode is that the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) and the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) early on started sharing testing results with WWALS. Even the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), which usually waits four months to publish, took to sending results to WWALS within days. Lowndes County, Georgia, which has its own sewage system that did not spill, started weekly testing and sharing results. Valdosta produced some useful results early, although WWALS could only get them via Florida or through open records requests. WWALS publishes all of the results, and is the only organization doing so.

It appears that the contamination came in several “blobs” or waves after rains upstream.

First Wave

Gradually oozing down the Withlacoochee River, the sewage made its way to GA 133 by December 15 (Valdosta), to US 84 by December 18 (SRWMD) or December 23 (Valdosta), and to Knights Ferry by December 21 (WWALS).

After two inches of rain on December 22, the first wave reached Nankin (WWALS) and State Line (FDEP) by December 26.

Second Wave
Valdosta showed continued too-high results at GA 133 on January 3, 2020 and January 7.

After another inch of rain on January 4, Lowndes County on January 6 found E. coli levels above 1000 at Knights Ferry, Nankin, and State Line, and FDEP found 7,576 at State Line (GA 31).

That second wave reached Florida: FDEP found similar results at CR 150 (Sullivan Launch) January 7, the day after at FL 6 (just above Madison Blue Spring), and on January 9 FDOH found it at CR 141 (Allen Ramp).

Third Wave
After another inch of rain on January 12, FDEP found a third wave at State Line on January 13, continuing for two (FDOH) or three (SRWMD) days. That third wave reached into Florida on January 15: CR 150 (Sullivan Launch, SRWMD and FDOH), FL 6 (above Madison Blue Spring, FDOH), and CR 141 (Allen Ramp, FDOH).
Fourth Wave?

In samples from Sunday, January 26, 2020, WWALS tester Suzy Hall found high (500) E. coli at Knights Ferry Boat Ramp and very high (1233) at State Line Boat Ramp. (See What do these numbers mean?)

The last Florida results were from the Thursday three days before, and showed nothing unusual.

Lowndes County had tested the previous Wednesday, January 22, 2020, and found nothing unsual, except elevated levels of 397 at U.S. 84 on the Withlacoochee River and 365 on Okapilco Creek downstream of U.S. 84.

The following Wednesday, January 29, 2020, Lowndes County found good results (below 100) at State Line, Nankin, and Knights Ferry, and I found a matching zero at Nankin.

On Okapilco Creek that Wednesday, Lowndes County got 95.9 at GA 76, I got 66 at U.S. 84, and Lowndes County got 378.4 downstream of U.S. 84. I also got 100 on Piscola Creek at Old Madison Road in Brooks County.

So whatever was in the Withlacoochee River on Sunday, January 26, 2020, apparently passed by between the preceding Thursday and the following Wednesday.


The repeated Lowndes County elevated results on Okapilco Creek, of which these were not the first, now has WWALS and Lowndes County searching for a source of contamination of Okapilco Creek.

Which does not let Valdosta off the hook for remediation for the damage caused by its December 2019 spill. Nor for the indirect reputational damage on all the rivers in the Suwannee River Basin, the stigma, caused by Valdosta’s spills going back decades.

We need ongoing, at least weekly, regular water quality testing at all the places on the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers, and Sugar Creek and Okapilco and Piscola Creeks, that have been tested in the past two months.

With that solid testing basis to say when the rivers are clean and when they are not, we can publicise those results and market eco-tourism and gradually lift the stigma. By we, I mean at least the dozen Florida counties, Valdosta, and WWALS.

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!