Cattle and hogs: Withlacoochee River water quality status 2021-06-27

Update 2021-06-28: Filthy GA-FL Line, Withlacoochee River 2021-06-26.

Most Withlacoochee River contamination comes from cattle manure runoff, according to extensive testing. Yet there is the myth that every problem with the Withlacoochee River comes from Valdosta sewage. Actually, Valdosta has not had a spill that got into the river in more than a year and a half.

Other cities do have sewage spills (especially Quitman), which do cause problems. But when the rivers have E. coli after big rains, it usually comes from cattle manure runoff.

Most of the time our rivers are clean, and here’s how we know that.

[Map: Quitman, Valdosta, Okapilco Creek, Knights Ferry Boat Ramp, Withlacoochee-River]
Map: Quitman, Valdosta, Okapilco Creek, Knights Ferry Boat Ramp, Withlacoochee-River in the WWALS map of all public landings in the Suwannee River Basin.

These questions from a year ago still reflect many we get to this day: “Suggestion….why not see if you can involved Bill Gates in getting Valdosta to stop all spillage?”

Bill Gates didn’t buy farmland as a philanthropic endeavor. His investment arm bought it to make money. He even claims his Cascade Investments, not him, made the decision to start those purchases.

More questions: “Valdosta now says they to build $10 mil equalization equipment. That’s not good enough. Am not saying it should not be done, am saying why not done as part of the new facility…protection from spillage was supposed to be the reason for the new facility, or the main reason. We know how they work…it will take a long time to do this, so what about in the meantime?”

Indeed Valdosta should have built the catch basin when they built the new, uphill, out-of-the-floodplain Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP). And they still have not produced any study to show whether it’s big enough.

However, they already finished the catch basin in December 2020.

Valdosta WWTP Catch Basin

Fortunately, Valdosta has not had a major spill since December 2019. The catch basin would not have helped at all with that spill. It was pure negligence, coming from a force main pump station on Sugar Creek, and not discovered for four days.

We shall see whether the new catch basin will prevent spills like those in December 2018. But even then, only 2/3 of the sewage spilled then came by the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP). The rest was from two dozen manhole overflows throughout Valdosta. The catch basin will do nothing to stop those. However, Valdosta is continuing to fix old sewer lines.

Another question: “And what steps are being taken to clean up the Withlacoochee? We cannot wait. We need to take legal action to force Valdosta to take preventative measures and clean up the river/water and legal action against the company that was working on the system, who negligently caused this to happen. NOW is the time to strike!!!”

Legal action has been taken, due to insistence by the dozen downstream Florida Counties, elected and appointed officials in Florida and Georgia, irate citizens in both states, and WWALS.

Florida Counties Task Force in Valdosta 2020-01-08

In June 2021, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division levied a Consent Order on Valdosta.

[Photo 2: Dead largemouth bass in Sugar Creek below Bay Tree Road.]
Photo 2: Dead largemouth bass in Sugar Creek below Bay Tree Road.

That Consent Order includes a $125,000 fine, which is the first time Valdosta has ever been fined for sewage spills. It includes requirements to continue numerous expensive fixes, and to do water quality monitoring three times a week on forty river miles to the state line.

It is quite unusual that nobody had to sue to get that Consent Order. There was so much pressure that it happened anyway, and for the first time ever Valdosta got a fine.

Here is more detail on how we got there:

[Page 01]

It’s not often that I praise the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). But FDEP and the Suwannee River Water Management District stepped up and measured water quality after the December 2019 Valdosta spill, which was instrumental in getting that Consent Order.

Due to insistence by WWALS and by Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, FDEP had already started testing for chemical tracers and DNA markers. That is a big part of how we know that most contamination these days comes from ruminants, of which the most common are cattle. The FDEP results alone do not narrow it down to just cattle: they say ruminants, which include many species that chew their cud.

[Human and Ruminant DNA markers]
Human and Ruminant DNA markers

However, there’s only one giraffe hereabouts (at Wild Adventures), no antelope, only a few sheep, and more than 10,000 cattle in Brooks County, Georgia, plus more elsewhere.

Deer cannot account for the amount of contamination detected. And if it was coming from deer, why would the Alapaha River, which is far more wild, always show much less contamination than the Withlacoochee River?

We also have one WWALS DNA test that is more specific, showing cattle DNA, not just ruminants.

That test also detected hog DNA, although not as much as cattle DNA. Hogs are not ruminants, but there are wild hogs near the river. However, like deer, if the main source of contamination was wild hogs, why would the Alapaha River always show less contamination than the Withlacoochee River?

There are other likely sources, such as at least three horse farms on or near the Withlacoochee River. But there are still far more cattle.

The cattle owners want to be part of the solution. They were actually already working on best management practices such as fencing the cattle back from the waterways and planting vegetative buffers near fences. It appears that what they are doing is working, because bad test results this year are not nearly as bad as last year, after similar rains:

[Map: Swim Guide]
Map: Swim Guide

Another question: “Why are we not hearing from the State of Florida, also? This has to impact the Suwanee River, too?!”

Oh, we have heard from the State of Florida; see above.

Indeed, contamination in the Withlacoochee River can run all the way down the Suwannee River to the Gulf, as we learned from Florida’s Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) in March 2020.

[2020-03-01 Suwannee River downstream]

That particular incident turned out to be cattle manure.

A month later, a sewage spill from Quitman, Georgia had the same effect.

[Quitman downstream to Running Springs]
Quitman downstream to Running Springs
For context and the entire WWALS composite spreadsheet of Georgia and Florida water quality data, see

Quitman spills far too often. But cattle manure runoff affects the rivers more often than that, during and after heavy rains. But when there is little rain, the rivers are usually quite clean.

We continue to watch Quitman, Valdosta (and Ray City, Adel, Tifton, Rochelle, and Ashburn).

Valdosta in particular is often late to post its water quality results, and we will keep after them until they do better. We also tend to discover even the few small spills they have before they get into the news, so they know we are constantly watching.

However, Valdosta’s thrice-weekly water quality testing on forty river miles to the GA-FL line is one big reason we have a good idea of when the rivers are clean and when they are not. Combined with downstream testing by Madison County, monthly testing by FDEP, and quarterly testing by Lowndes County, Georgia, plus WWALS testing, there is more and more frequent water quality testing here than anywhere else I know of in Georgia or Florida.

[Map: Water Quality Testing Areas, Suwannee River Basin]
Map: Water Quality Testing Areas, Suwannee River Basin

Anyone who wants to help, please join WWALS:

Floridians, please ask your statehouse delegation to fund and direct FDEP to test all the rivers from the state line to the Gulf. Madison County should not have to foot all the expense of Florida water quality testing. If Valdosta can do it three times a week on forty river miles, the great State of Florida can test the rest, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Those who want to help hands-on, you can sign up to get trained by WWALS to do water quality testing.

[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 the record Valdosta spill.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

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