More testing needed to track river pollution –Suwannee Riverkeeper in Gainesville Sun 2020-03-16

Gainesville Sun, 12:01 AM, Monday, March 16, 2020, John S. Quarterman: More testing needed to track river pollution (see also PDF),

Fecal bacterial contamination from Georgia probably reached the Gulf of Mexico about March 3, 2020, according to the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD).

[Tifton to the Gulf]
Tifton to the Gulf
In the WWALS map of all public landings in the Suwannee River Basin.

The good news: we know about that, because of much more water quality monitoring being done since I wrote a column about the issue last year for The Sun.

This recent testing was provoked by a spill of 7.5 million gallons of raw sewage into Sugar Creek near Valdosta, Ga., in December. With no rain, the sewage sat there for a week, and then moved down the Withlacoochee River in about three weekly globs, at least once reaching the Suwannee.

This Valentine’s Day, Valdosta exceeded our request, testing not one but three times a week, all the way to the state line, and publishing the results online.

On February 28th, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) started putting results online from three Florida agencies, FDEP, SRWMD, and the Florida Department of Health (FDOH). WWALS Watershed Coalition publishes an online spreadsheet of those and WWALS’ results:

[2020-03-01 Suwannee river downstream]
2020-03-01 Suwannee river downstream
For context, including the entire WWALS composite spreadsheet of all known data sources, see

Results show contamination episodes when no sewage spills have been reported, starting in the Withlacoochee River halfway to the state line, so it’s not just Valdosta. They’re probably coming down Okapilco Creek from Brooks County, Georgia, according to tests by WWALS and by Lowndes County, Georgia. There are other possibilities in Hamilton and Suwannee Counties, Florida. WWALS is narrowing down sources.

[Suzy with a Petrifilm]
Suzy Hall with a Petrifilm.
Each bacterial test costs $6 for Petrifilms alone, or about $8 total.
You can help WWALS test water quality by donating to our water quality testing program.

Without testing, we probably didn’t know this has been happening for years.

If even one of the sources is livestock, fixes may take a long time.

To find out, we need the Florida and Georgia legislatures to fund water quality monitoring of all our rivers, ongoing, at least weekly, closely-spaced, all the way to the Gulf. Plus water well testing for baselines and to track contamination underground.

In January, a task force of Florida counties resolved to ask the Legislature to fund such testing. Madison and Hamilton Counties’ Health Departments and SRWMD are overbudget doing most of the recent Florida testing. FDEP and SRWMD are already testing at springs and monthly at half a dozen river points, so the legislature could fill in gaps in weeks and stations, from Georgia to the Gulf.

How long will Valdosta continue testing? The Georgia legislature still needs to fund the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA-EPD) to test regularly upstream and downstream of Valdosta, Tifton, and Quitman, to the state line. Or have GA-EPD direct Valdosta to continue thrice-weekly testing of the Withlacoochee River and Okapilco Creek. GA-EPD also needs to fund testing on the Alapaha, Alapahoochee, and Suwannee Rivers in Georgia.

Last November, Lowndes County voters approved another seven years of a penny sales tax, from which Valdosta expects to get another $40 million for wastewater system improvements. Everyone applauds Valdosta replacing old sewer lines, fixing manhole covers, and digging a catch basin at the entrance to its Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant to head off spills like two of those of December 2018.

But we still don’t know if that catch basin will be big enough. And that SCADA system for fast internal notification I applauded last letter? It was disconnected in December 2019 and not discovered for four days, in a massive failure of oversight.

Beyond better operating procedures, Valdosta needs to reimburse Madison and Hamilton Counties, Florida, well and river testing expenses since the December Valdosta spill. Valdosta has spilled far more sewage than anyone else, while Tifton, Quitman and Lowndes County, Georgia, have not reported any spills since my last letter.

As by far the biggest city in the Suwannee River Basin, Valdosta is responsible beyond just fixing its own messes. Valdosta also needs to help repair the decades-long reputational damage to the entire Suwannee River Basin. That stigma puts people off fishing, swimming, and boating, with economic effects on everyone who goes there, including from Gainesville.

[During Paddle Georgia 2019-06-16]
Photo: John S. Quarterman for WWALS, Knights Ferry Boat Ramp, During Paddle Georgia 2019-06-16.

New Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson proposed, WWALS organized, and people from Florida and Georgia attended, a Mayor’s Paddle down a previously-contaminated stretch of the Withlacoochee. On May 18th, WWALS, Valdosta, and Georgia Power are co-sponsoring a cleanup at Knights Ferry Boat Ramp, famous recently for fecal bacteria, with an optional paddle 6.6 miles to Nankin Boat Ramp. Weather and bacterial tests permitting, y’all come!

[On Air]
On Air
Left to right: Georgia Power Southwest District Director Joe Brownlee, Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman, Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, on 92.1 FM, with WWALS video, 2020-03-12.
Note the April 18th paddle from Knights Ferry to Nankin may have to be omitted due to novel Coronavirus, but the Cleanup at Knights Ferry Boat Ramp is still on.

There is cross-state-line eco-tourism support for a Troupville [River Camp] at the Confluence of Georgia’s Little River with the Withlacoochee just west of Valdosta, connecting downstream to the Suwannee River Camps.

WWALS Map of Troupville River Camp at the center of the Withlacoochee and Little River Water Trail on the way to the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail.

When are our rivers clean and not? When it is safe to paddle, swim, or fish? What are the sources? We need testing.

John S. Quarterman is Suwannee Riverkeeper. WWALS is the Waterkeeper Alliance member for the Suwannee River and all its tributaries.

Contact: John S. Quarterman, Suwannee Riverkeeper®
WWALS Watershed Coalition
PO Box 88, Hahira, GA 31632