Contaminated Withlacoochee, Alapaha, Suwannee Rivers 2021-01-04; cleaner 2021-01-09

Update 2021-01-14: see clarifications and updates in Withlacoochee advisory lifted; more FDEP DNA marker and chemical tracer data 2021-01-12.

The Withlacoochee, Alapaha, and Suwannee Rivers were contaminated with E. coli Monday, January 4, 2021, all the way from US 41 at North Valdosta Road to US 90 below the Withlacoochee River Confluence, and probably farther downstream, according to Valdosta, Madison Health, and FDEP data for that day. We also have preliminary DNA marker results from FDEP.

The culprit? Ruminants. The only ruminants numerous enough to cause the sky-high DNA marker results for the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers? Cattle.

This is a good example of how when testing happens upstream and down, we can all tell what is going on. Florida needs to fund frequent, regular, closely-spaced water quality testing from the state line to the Gulf.

[Bad Monday, Withlacoochee, Alapaha, Suwannee, better now]
Bad Monday, Withlacoochee, Alapaha, Suwannee, better now

We also have reports of downstream Suwannee River springs with the usual brown contaminated color around that time, for example Running Springs. Numerous springs are running backwards due to high river water levels. That means river water is going into the Floridan Aquifer and into shallower underground waters. Which means contaminated water can come up in drinking wells.

[Tifton, GA, Gulf of Mexico]
Tifton, GA, Gulf of Mexico, in the WWALS map of all public landings in the Suwannee River Basin.
Tifton is towards the upper left; Adel is halfway to Valdosta; Sasser Landing is just south of the GA-FL line on the Alapaha River; Running Springs is highlighted somewhat above the center of the map.

It’s natural to wonder, did the contamination in the Alapaha River come from Valdosta’s Mildred Street sewage spill? Did it come from Tifton’s several spills into the New River? Those were all during the same rains. But apparently those were not significant sources of this E. coli.

[Bad Withlacoochee, Alapaha, and Suwannee Rivers 2021-01-04]
Bad Withlacoochee, Alapaha, and Suwannee Rivers 2021-01-04
For context and the entire WWALS composite spreadsheet of Georgia and Florida water quality results, rainfall, and spills, see:

Thanks to Katrina Yancey of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), we have preliminary DNA marker results for three locations on three rivers for Monday, January 4, 2021, which coincides with upstream testing by Valdosta and more by Madison Health that same day.

[FDEP preliminary DNA marker results 2021-01-04]
FDEP preliminary DNA marker results 2021-01-04

In that data just received, the ruminant DNA marker BacR shows:

  • 326,000 for the Withlacoochee (Horn Bridge on GA 31 near the GA-FL line),
  • 118,000 for the Suwannee (US 90 downstream of SRSP), and
  • 6,800 for the Alapaha (Sasser Landing near CR 150, downstream of the Alapahoochee River)

Comparing to the previous WWALS Summary of FDEP chemical and biological tracers, Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers 2020-08-05, we’ve seen higher than 326,000 on the Withlacoochee River, at GA 31 and CR 150 (Sullivan Launch) on 6 and 7 Jan 2020, during one of the waves of sewage washing downstream from the record Valdosta December 2019 spill.

The latest Alapaha 6,800 BacR is still higher than 1,500, which if I recall correctly is the minimum significant level.

Meanwhile, the human DNA marker results for all three rivers was only 280, which is barely above significant level.

So it looks like cattle for all three rivers, with far more on the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers than on the Alapaha.

Did all this cattle manure come from Georgia? Probably not, since we know of a place where cattle walk right down into the Withlacoochee River upstream from Sullivan Launch, for example. But probably most of it did come from Georgia, since there are more cattle in open pastures near feeders such as Okapilco Creek in for example Brooks County, Georgia. Fortunately, some of the cattle owners are working to ameliorate this problem.

The good news is the rainwater that washed the cattle manure into the rivers has apparently since then, through sheer volume of river water, washed the contamination away. Thanks to Valdosta PIO Ashlyn Johnson, we have a more complete picture for last week. The latest results we have are from WWALS testers Josh and Angela Duncan for Wednesday at Sasser Landing on the Alapaha River, and from Michael and Jacob Bachrach for Saturday at Nankin and State Line on the Withlacoochee River.

Away probably means all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. That apparently happened before in early March 2020, most likely again about a month later, , that time probably from a Quitman, GA, sewage spill, and probably more than once before and since then.

[Cleaner 2021-01-04-09]
Cleaner 2021-01-04-09

So all the WWALS Withlacoochee River “beaches” are green on Swim Guide, except for Knights Ferry Boat Ramp, where we have no new data because it’s still underwater.

[Swim Guide green 2021-01-09]
Swim Guide green 2021-01-09

We can always use new volunteer water quality testers, especially downstream in Florida; you can sign up to get trained.

WWALS is always happy to receive donations:

As we keep writing here and in the Gainesville Sun, Florida needs to fund and implement frequent, regular, closely-spaced water quality testing on all Suwannee Basin rivers all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. If Valdosta, Georgia, can do it three times a week on forty river miles to the GA-FL line, the great state of Florida can do it from the state line to the Gulf. Floridians, please ask your statehouse delegation to make it so.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

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