Valdosta test results: filthy Withlacoochee River after big spill, many creeks still filthy after smaller spills 2024-04-11

Update 2024-05-04: Clean rivers and some creeks, but rain 2024-05-02.

Valdosta knew the Withlacoochee River was filthy on that Friday and Saturday before it issued its press release on Monday, April 15, about its 6.7-million-gallon spill into Spring Branch to that river. We know this because Valdosta, unlike the other cities that spilled during the big rains of April 11, Valdosta puts its followup test results on the city’s website. Those results also show the river is clean, and has been since the Sunday after the spill. But some creeks are still filthy; see below.

[Valdosta test results: filthy Withlacoochee River after big spill, many creeks still filthy after smaller spills]
Valdosta test results: filthy Withlacoochee River after big spill, many creeks still filthy after smaller spills

For people going to festivals at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park: that location is upstream on the Suwannee River from the Withlacoochee River, and thus is not affected by any of the sewage spills that went into the Withlacoochee. I wouldn’t be surprised if the big rains washed some contamination into the Suwannee River. But that was three weeks ago, and most likely that E. coli was diluted and washed downstream long ago. The biggest thing you have to worry about in the Suwannee River at that park is probably contamination from people on the beach there.

[Map: Wainwright Drive culvert on One Mile Branch]
Map: Wainwright Drive culvert on One Mile Branch
in the WWALS map of the Withlacoochee and Little River Water Trail (WLRWT)

Valdosta’s state-required followup testing shows some creeks filthy with E. coli three weeks later. That includes Sugar Creek at Gornto Road, just upstream from where Valdosta City employee Russell Allen McBride was honored this week for his volunteer work at the WaterGoat trash trap. His volunteers often include children and elderly people, who may not be aware that they are risking disease by getting Sugar Creek water on them. More on the state of that and other Valdosta creeks and the Withlacoochee River below.

Update 2024-05-04: Russell remarked in a facebook comment: “Please stop with misinformation about the elderly and children risking getting a disease by helping at the WaterGoat. Not one elderly person or child has gotten in the water at the WaterGoat since any large rains and or sewage spills. I am the only one who gets in with my waders on. The WaterGoat should never come up in a negative way in a blog about sewage. I know the risk and act accordingly. If WWALS put a fraction of the effort into the trash problem as it does sewage we would have a trash free Withlacoochee River.”

This is good news which we did not previously know, that only Russell gets in Sugar Creek at WaterGoat cleanings.

However, other people get Sugar Creek water on them for other reasons, and our main point still stands: Valdosta’s sewage spills are still contaminating Sugar Creek and other creeks, and anybody who does get that water on them risks disease.

I have asked Russell what else he thinks WWALS should be doing about trash. Meanwhile, see:
https://wwals.net/issues/trash

Review of what happened so far

Let’s recap the situation before getting into more detail. Homerville, Rochelle, Ashburn, Tifton, and Quitman, GA, had sewage spills, during or after the big rains of April 11, 2024.

[Updates on Homerville, Quitman, Tifton, and Valdosta in GA-EPD Sewage Spills Report 2024-04-16-17]
Updates on Homerville, Quitman, Tifton, and Valdosta in GA-EPD Sewage Spills Report 2024-04-16-17

Valdosta beat them all, with nine small spills and one 6.7-million-gallon spill. Valdosta is so much larger than those other cities, its sewer system is so much larger, that the number of its spills and the size of its big ones, especially that multi-million-gallon spill, are why Valdosta gets most of the attention. Valdosta’s sewer system is also ten times larger and mostly much older than Lowndes County’s, so Valdosta’s system is more prone to spills. Valdosta is working on that; see below.

[Madison-Flood-Water-PR-4-17-2024-0001]
Madison-Flood-Water-PR 4.0000000, 0.0000000
PDF

Madison Health issued a Health Advisory for the Withlacoochee River. Testing by Madison Health and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection showed the Withlacoochee River clean at the state line and two places downstream for April 17 and 18.

[Chart: WWALS and FDEP testing around State Line, 2024-04-17-18]
Chart: WWALS and FDEP testing around State Line, 2024-04-17-18

Which matches WWALS results at the State Line for April 16. Other WWALS results upstream and down at five more locations showed the river clean April 15, 16, and 18. Those matched Valdosta results for April 16, which were published in the usual Valdosta location on its city website.

I’ve heard Valdosta city officials wonder how Madison Health could put out a Health Advisory without testing first. Well, it turns out Valdosta did test before that Health Advisory. Valdosta knew the Withlacoochee was filthy on April 12 and 13, but did not include that in its April 15 press release. More on that below.

[Chart: Filthy creeks and Withlacoochee River 2024-04-11-12]
Chart: Filthy creeks and Withlacoochee River 2024-04-11-12

The Madison County, FL, BOCC had a lively agenda item about Valdosta spills, with Madison Health, Commissioners from Hamilton and Suwannee Counties, the E.D. of the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council, FL State Rep. Allison Tant, staffers from FL State Senator Corey Simon and U.S. Congressman Neal Dunn, and Suwannee Riverkeeper. Valdosta did not send anyone to that meeting.

[FL State Rep. Allison Tant addresses Madison County Commission about Valdosta sewage spills 2024-04-24]
FL State Rep. Allison Tant addresses Madison County Commission about Valdosta sewage spills 2024-04-24

At Valdosta’s own April 25 City Council meeting, no Valdosta official said anything in public about those spills, other than the Mayor telling a visitor from Madison County that he would talk to him after the meeting.

[Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman at Valdosta City Council 2024-04-25]
Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman at Valdosta City Council 2024-04-25

In Florida, High Springs had a 1,500-gallon inland spill. No other Florida spills in the Suwannee River Basin were reported during or after the big rains of April 11.

Update from Valdosta Utilities

I called Valdosta Acting Utilities Director Jason Barnes this morning. He says the web page for the followup test results after the April 11 spill probably went onto the city’s website on April 12 or 13. Which partly answers the question about why didn’t Valdosta tell anybody that the river results were too high. People who paid careful attention to its parent web page, River & Stream Water Quality Monitoring, could have known. However, the Monday press release already contained information that the state does not require, such as that the spill went into Spring Branch to the Withlacoochee River. Thanks to Valdosta for including that information.

So the Monday PR could have also included Valdosta’s Friday and Saturday test results.

If the testing analysis people were off for the weekend, well, power companies scrambled everybody that weekend to repair downed lines and test that everything was working. Seems to me Valdosta Utilities should, too.

[Acting Utilities Director Jason Barnes @ VCC 2024-04-25]
Acting Utilities Director Jason Barnes @ VCC 2024-04-25

I mentioned that Valdosta also had good results for Sunday, April 14. If Valdosta had included those in the Monday morning press release, many downstream complaints might have been headed off. He noted that they did not actually have the Sunday results processed until later Monday, which is fair, since it takes 24 hours to incubate water quality samples.

[Chart: Focus on Valdosta testing 2024-04-21]
Chart: Focus on Valdosta testing 2024-04-21

I suggested Valdosta could have followed up with a press release saying the Withlacoochee River tested clean Sunday. That would have scooped the WWALS report, since we did not have any river results until Tuesday. And it might have headed off the Madison Health Advisory because the river had already tested clean. That followup press release could even have included information about what the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA-EPD) requires for followup testing (daily testing for a week, then weekly for a month, upstream and downstream of the spill site).

We had a further discussion of how it is hard to think of press releases while trying to fix major sewage spills. One possibility discussed is that since only the Monday press release after the spill had stopped had to include all the information required by GA-EPD, Valdosta could have put out a two-sentence advisory on Friday saying there is a big spill, so far X,000 gallons; we’re working on it and will advise further tomorrow. Then on Saturday, the big spill is up to Y,000 gallons and preliminary testing shows the river has high Fecal coliform and E. coli at North Valdosta Road, GA 133, and US 84; we’re working on it and will advise further tomorrow. Then on Sunday, the big spill is up to Z,000 gallons, and preliminary testing shows Fecal coliform and E. coli not as high but still too high; we’re working on it and will advise further tomorrow.

Then on Monday the full press release required by GA-EPD, and on Tuesday the brief update with good river results.

No doubt there are many other ways to do this. But this is one scenario.

And with this scenario people on or near the Withlacoochee River would have known to avoid the river while the big spill was going on.

About the creeks still testing bad

I asked Valdosta Acting Utilities Director Jason Barnes about the creeks still showing bad water quality results in Valdosta testing last week and for this Wednesday, May 1.

[Chart: Several creeks still filthy 2024-04-24]
Chart: Several creeks still filthy 2024-04-24

For Three Mile Branch at Knob Hill Road, he thinks it is probably residue in the ditch washing downstream.

[Chart: Some creeks still filthy three weeks later 2024-05-01]
Chart: Some creeks still filthy three weeks later 2024-05-01

For One Mile Branch at Wainwright Drive, when the contractors for the developer at Wainwright Drive put in a new, higher, manhole, they left the old manhole in place, and apparently the old manhole overflowed during the rains. Inspection this morning shows the manhole is not overflowing. However, there are tree roots growing down there, and it is hard to say what damage they might have caused. Now that old manhole is going to be completely removed.

For Sugar Creek at Gornto Road, Valdosta personnel redid the manhole behind Target after the spill of April 11, after clearing an easement. Finished last week; inspected this morning.

What did not spill during the big rains: the infamous Knights Creek sewer line between Park Ave. and US 84 did not spill. The bypass pumps kept up with the sewage. The city plan is to completely replace that sewer line, and it’s in the budget, awaiting final approval by City Council.

[Map: Valdosta to US 84, Withlacoochee River]
Map: Valdosta to US 84, Withlacoochee River

There is some budget in place for fixing inflow and infiltration (I&I) in town, which is what is caused the big spill. Valdosta plans to keep forging ahead with fixing its old, failing, sewer lines, including before they fail.

They need to do that anyway. But we are not even into hurricane season yet, so there probably will be more big rain events. So a plan to do something to alleviate catch basin overflows would also be prudent.

Nobody is going to be happy until there are no sewage spills.

But at least the current adminstration at the City of Valdosta is working on the problem.

It will also help if they tell people what is going on.

I appreciate the current Acting Utilities Director answering his phone and being willing to discuss the situation.

We shall see.

We also may hear more about related activities downstream.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

You can help with clean, swimmable, fishable, drinkable, water in the 10,000-square-mile Suwannee River Basin in Florida and Georgia by becoming a WWALS member today!
https://wwals.net/donations/

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