Madison County fed up with contaminated water –WCTV 2020-02-26

Update 2020-02-29: Avoid Withlacoochee River Knights Ferry to Suwannee River Dowling Park 2020-02-27

See below for the rest of the story around yesterday’s TV report. You can help.

Amber Spradley, WCTV, 26 February 2020 (Posted: Thu 5:06 AM, Feb 27, 2020 | Updated: Thu 5:55 PM, Feb 27, 2020), Madison community fed up with contaminated water,

MADISON, Fla. (WCTV) — Madison County Board of Commissioners held a meeting Wednesday night to discuss the county’s high levels of E. coli and other contaminants in the Withlacoochee River and wells.

[Fallout continues]
Fallout continues
Still from video of Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman testing the Withlacoochee at Troupville Boat Ramp, taken by Emma Wheeler, WCTV, 15 January 2020, Withlacoochee River tested ahead of Mayor’s Paddle.

Board members say it’s fallout from multiple sewage spills happening in south Georgia, particularly the sewage spill in Valdosta last December.

It resulted in more than seven million gallons of sewage leaking into the Withlacoochee River.

[Still advised not to drink]
Still advised not to drink

Since then, the Madison County crews have been testing the river and well water weekly. Tonight, the latest test results showed 17 wells with E. coli.

[Also affecting surrounding areas]
Also affecting surrounding areas

As near as I could tell by talking to Valdosta city officials in Atlanta Wednesday, they still don’t believe any of this well contamination is their fault.

[They can't use their water --Donnie Waldrep, Chair, Madison BOCC]
They can’t use their water –Donnie Waldrep, Chair, Madison BOCC

Madison County would beg to differ.

[The recent sewage spills that have happened in Valdosta]
The recent sewage spills that have happened in Valdosta

The problem goes even beyond the direct contamination of the river and wells.

[Relies on the river for eco-tourism]
Relies on the river for eco-tourism
Still from video of Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman testing the Withlacoochee at Troupville Boat Ramp, taken by Emma Wheeler, WCTV, 15 January 2020, Withlacoochee River tested ahead of Mayor’s Paddle.

It goes beyond Madison or Hamilton Counties, or Lafayette or Suwannee Counties. That’s why there are a dozen counties in the Florida Task Force to deal with this problem, including Columbia and Alachua Counties, which are not downstream of Valdosta.

[This is a state issue --Rick Davis, Chair, Florida Counties Task Force]
This is a state issue –Rick Davis, Chair, Florida Counties Task Force

The entire Suwannee River Basin in two states is affected by this stigma, this reputational damage to all our rivers. People in Brooks County, Georgia, tell me they own land on the Withlacoochee River but hardly ever go there anymore because of this contamination.

[Attorney. My constituents, my voters, keep asking me....]
Attorney. My constituents, my voters, keep asking me….

We’ll see what Madison County actually does. They’re not the only organization talking to attorneys.

Back to the text of the WCTV story:

The city of Valdosta says they’ve added seven new test sites on the river, and they continue to monitor those multiple times throughout the week.

Actually, Valdosta started last week testing three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) from US 84 upstream of Valdosta down to the state line. We commend them for that. Wednesday in Atlanta, I personally complimented the PIO, Mayor, City Manager, Utilities Director, and the former Mayor on that testing.

According to the city’s public information officer, Ashlyn Becton, test results over the last couple of months have come back clean.

Well, that’s not what Valdosta’s own tests say, and tests by WWALS, three Florida agencies, and Lowndes County downstream where Valdosta was not testing were even worse on several occasions in the past coupld of months.

“So it has been maybe an issue in the past”, she said. “We’ve done a lot to invest in our infrastructure. So we have seen that number go down, but of course zero is what we’re aiming for. No spill is acceptable. So we’re doing whatever we can to get that number down to zero.”

As recently as December 18, 2019, the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) found very high Fecal coliform results on the Withlacoochee River just below Sugar Creek and at GA 133 and US 84. There is every reason to believe that was still sewage from Valdosta’s record-largest raw sewage spill of early December 2019. Nobody knows for sure that some of the more recent too-high numbers downstream were not at least in part still remnant Valdosta sewage, washing down in later rains.

She says, though, tests results in January and early February show high contamination levels in Okapilco Creek.

“We are doing a little more testing in that area just to try to see if we can maybe determine the contamination source. It’s something we want to keep an eye on, but it’s definitely south of our outfall,” Becton said.

She didn’t mention that those test results in January and early February were taken by Lowndes County and WWALS, not Valdosta. Nor that Valdosta only knows about contamination in Okapilco Creek because of WWALS tester Suzy Hall’s discovery of December 21, 2019, and again on December 24, followed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) finding too-high numbers at the state line on December 26, 2019.

Valdosta did not agree to Lowndes County issuing a Code Red telephone alert, so none ever went out, although Madison County, Florida, has issued a Code Red, and the Florida Department of Health has issued river warnings at least three or four times since early February.

Because the Withlacoochee River downstream of Valdosta affects Lowndes County citizens, Lowndes County started testing weekly at Knights Ferry, Nankin, and State Line, and on January 6, 2020, Lowndes found too-high E. coli numbers at all three locations, and FDEP found even higher numbers at the state line.

That episode is what caused both Lowndes County and WWALS to place warning signs at Knights Ferry Boat Ramp, Nankin Boat Ramp, and State Line Boat Ramp, even though Valdosta still refused to do so, with its usual Valdosta excuse, “we did what we were required to do”.

State Line Boat Ramp 2020-01-10.

These Knights Ferry results led to Lowndes County branching out to test Okapilco Creek, which comes from Brooks County, Georgia, and enters the Withlacoochee River between US 84 and Knights Ferry. Lowndes County found bad water quality downstream of US 84 on January 10, 2020, and worse on January 16. This is even though tests upstream on Okapilco Creek at US 84 and GA 76 by WWALS and Lowndes County are always lower, usually within the state limit of 410 cfu/100 mL (see what do these numbers mean?).

And that led to WWALS testing Crooked Creek, which crosses US 84 east of Okapilco Creek and then runs into Okapilco Creek, apparently upstream of where Lowndes County has been testing. So far we have always found horrible numbers at the Devane Road bridge on Crooked Creek, and merely really bad numbers at Monument Church Road. Something is getting into Crooked Creek, and maybe also directly into Okapilco Creek. We are investigating three (maybe four) main possibilities.

[Crooked Creek @ Devane Road]
Crooked Creek @ Devane Road 2020-02-21

Valdosta is doing nothing to help with these investigations on Crooked Creek. Valdosta did take over from Lowndes County for testing downstream on Okapilco Creek, and at Knights Ferry, Nankin, and State Line on the Withlacoochee River.

But there is more Valdosta needs to do, especially related to water well testing. As of Wednesday, there was still no indication from Valdosta that they planned to pay up for the downstream well testing expenses incurred by counties and individuals.

To address the stigma, new Valdosta Mayor Scott James’ idea of a Mayor’s Paddle went well, and is a good start. But it will take a lot more testing and marketing than that, probably ongoing for years.

Here is yesterday’s WCTV video:

You Can Help

You can help WWALS test water quality by donating to our WWALS water quality testing program.

[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 after this Valdosta spill.

Much more about recent water quality is on the WWALS website.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

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