For a period of several years, sewage spills from the City of Valdosta has been the on-going source of ever-increasing fecal contamination in the Suwannee River. As if the spills were not bad enough, Valdosta has been inexcusably more than lax in reporting them to the public.
Valdosta has spent time and lots of money in fruitless attempts to correct the problem, and only a few months ago had the worst spill of all, caused by human negligence. Even before the monumental spill in December, 2019, the problems had become so egregious that the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council appointed a special task force to address the situation.
Incredibly, it was discovered that there was little testing previously done in Florida or Georgia by state agencies. John Quarterman, who is the Suwannee RiverKeeper, is principally responsible for the testing for fecal contamination in the Suwannee River. Efforts by Quarterman, along with those by OSFR board member Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, resulted in the much-needed monitoring described below in the article.
The Suwannnee River already has one of the highest nitrate loadings of Florida rivers, over 80 per cent of which comes from agricultural fertilizer according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Unfortunately, with the Georgia fecal bacteria, it is becoming Florida’s largest sewer. Thanks to John Quarterman and Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, new awareness may lead to more accountability.
It needs to be pointed out and noted that once again, the authorities and agencies set up to protect our rivers and the public health failed in their mission. If not for grassroots environmentalists Quarterman and Malwitz-Jipson, who knows when or if ever, it would have occurred to these people that testing and alerting the public might be a worthwhile idea.
This is amazingly too often the case. Your historian recently attended a two-day water symposium in Gainesville, sponsored by University of Florida and Duke Energy. Of the several dozens of speakers only one grass roots environmentalist could be found. Most were from our state agencies/state funded groups such as water management districts, universities or commercial businesses partially funded by developers. Most recognized our water contamination problem, but most wanted to apply Band-Aids without addressing sources. We are not yet ready to bite the bullet and may not be until too late.
Read the complete article by John Quarterman here in the Gainesville Sun.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
– A river is like a life: once taken,
it cannot be brought back © Jim Tatum
More testing needed to track river pollution
By John S. Quarterman
Special to The Sun
Fecal bacterial contamination from Georgia probably reached the Gulf of Mexico about March 3, according to the Suwannee River Water Management District.
The good news is that we know about it, 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 by testing not one but three times a week, all the way to the state line, and publishing the results online.
On Feb. 28, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection started putting its results online along with those from the Suwannee River Water Management District and the Florida Department of Health. WWALS Watershed Coalition publishes an online spreadsheet of those and the coalition’s results at www.wwals. net/issues/testing/.
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. WWALS is narrowing down sources.
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. Water well testing is also needed 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 the water management district are over budget doing most of the recent Florida testing.
The district and Department of Environmental Protection 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 regularly testing upstream and downstream of Valdosta, Tifton and Quitman to the state line, or direct Valdosta to continue its testing.
Testing also needs to be funded 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 system for fast internal notification I applauded last column? It was disconnected in December and not discovered for four days, in a massive failure of oversight.
Beyond better operating procedures, Valdosta needs to reimburse Madison and Hamilton counties in Florida for 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 column.
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….
John S. Quarterman is the Suwannee Riverkeeper. WWALS is the Waterkeeper Alliance member for the Suwannee River and all its tributaries.