By Robin Postell
LOWNDES CO., Ga. – On Saturday, January 17 about thirty people showed up at the Troupville Boat Ramp to join WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc., for the “Mayor’s Paddle.”
City of Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson was at the boat ramp at 9 a.m. ready to put in for the 10 a.m. paddle which would end roughly six hours later at Spook Bridge take out. Kayaking, as Matheson has often said, is his passion. He has been an avid kayaker for 30 years and his affable good humor combined with his declarations of making the water safe again as the newest Valdosta Mayor is uplifting.
Lowndes County Board of Commissioner Chairman Bill Slaughter was also there at 9 a.m., not intending to paddle but to see the others off, as was City of Valdosta Public Information Officer Ashlyn Becton.
Also present was Madison County Commissioner Rick Davis, who put in with the group at 10 a.m. Not only is Davis concerned about the health of his community in Madison County, he’s concerned about that stigma and how that will effect eco-tourism. At a recent public City of Valdosta meeting he said, “How do we go about repairing the reputation of our river? Where do we go from here?”
Davis’ presence and participation in the paddle demonstrated his ongoing willingness to not merely confront, but collaborate with the City of Valdosta to help solve the problem going forward.
“The river is beautiful and we just want to keep it that way,” Davis said at the midway point of the paddle. “I see a lot that City of Valdosta is doing and let’s just hope that they keep continuing to do it.” (Listen to his remarks in video below.)
National Geographic network’s “Live Free of Die” reality show star “Colbert,” who has lived in the woods on the Little River in a hand-made cabin after going off the grid 25 years ago, showed up to see the paddlers off and said, “If we don’t keep the water clean, we’re all dead.” (See below video for his comments.)
Georgia Power Regional Director Joe Brownlee showed up, too. “We support many of the Riverkeepers throughout the state and when we saw the attention being brought to it (spill) I thought it would be a great idea to be out here and support it.”
VSU Biology Professor Leslie S. Jones was also there with her kayak. “I think it’s wonderful what they’re (WWALS) are doing for the rivers,” she said
There is a stigma attached to the Withlacoochee and associated rivers and waterways, and very justifiable concerns from the community here in Lowndes and Brooks, and particularly down in the northern Florida counties, such as Madison and Hamilton.
The event was organized after weeks of testing by WWALS, which found E. coli in multiple sites throughout the Lowndes County area since the City of Valdosta’s record-largest raw sewage spill took place in early Dec. 2019.
Just before Mayor Scott James Matheson took office, he and Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quarterman of WWALS discussed the prospect of having this Mayor’s Paddle in the event that the water tested clean by Jan. 17.
Which it did.
Testing has shown three waves of contamination one after the other, about a week apart, according to testing from WWALS, Lowndes County, and three Florida agencies.
“It’s not just where does it actually go, but the stigma attached to it,” Suwannee Riverkeeper John S. Quartermaster told Valdosta Today prior to the paddle.
Had it not been for social media and public outcry, there is a chance that citizens would never have known about the spill. There was no signage posted by the city at the boat ramps and other entry ways used by the public to access the river. There was no health advisory issued by the City of Valdosta, and the Georgia Department of Public Health, including the Lowndes County South Health District connected to it, made it clear in a recent VT interview that it is “not in their jurisdiction.”
The City of Valdosta did not post the results of any testing on their website, and Lowndes County did begin testing recently, due to the WWALS test results, having completed two tests and planning on continuing testing on a weekly basis. The County got high numbers at Nankin and Knights Ferry.
Among those gathered for the “Mayor’s Paddle” were several faces WWALS didn’t recognize. Word had gotten around that the paddle was happening after tests had shown negative results just prior. Five members of the Quitman Fire Department, including their Chief, were there with kayaks in tow. They say they love their rivers and fish everyday.
“We eat what we catch,” one said, apparently unconcerned by the recent health advisory issued for Brooks County.
Others who were asked, including Quarterman, his wife Gretchen, and WWALS tester Suzy Sparkman Hall, said no, they would no eat the fish from the rivers under any circumstances.
No tests have been done on the fish at this time.
The paddle was beautiful but there was a sense that there was something “not right.” The weather couldn’t have been nicer, a little brisk and sunny, but there were wafting unpleasant odors that smelled strongly of sewage at a few different points along the 11-mile paddle. Passing the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant outflow, which is not where the latest spill originated, but where treated water is released into the river, some reported an unpleasant smell.
“It doesn’t matter where it is coming from,” Quarterman said with slight frustration during an interview. “The point is people need to be warned. Valdosta saw a slightly elevated number (in their testing) at Nankin and didn’t tell anybody.”
WWALS has been doing the testing at a cost paid for by a “fair amount of donations,” Quarterman said. The Petrifilms WWALS uses for their sample testings is only for E. coli.
Lowndes County had nothing to do with the City of Valdosta’s spill but is testing anyway.
“No one has ever seen this kind of incident when the river is this low,” Quarterman said. “It’s not all said and done. We’ve already seen three waves going down the Withlacoochhee and don’t know if there’s going to be a fourth wave. Even if it’s not, Madison and Hamilton counties have spent a lot of money because of Valdosta sewage, including well testing. And no one has yet tested the bottom of the river. It’s not even over from this incident. People need to keep testing the wells because some of this must have seeped into the ground and we need to know where. It still won’t be over. If we had had regular testing at Sugar Creek we probably would’ve detected this incident before the city noticed. There needs to be at least weekly testing on all the places that have been tested in the last month, all the way down the Withlacoochee to the Suwannee since this recent event. This isn’t just to attack Valdosta, we need to know when the river is testing poorly. The only way to have a baseline testing. And I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – I think Valdosta ought to be paying for that.”
As for the Mayor, he was clearly in his element paddling, surrounding by curious fellow-paddlers who had questions for him regarding the City of Valdosta’s plans for dealing with the current spill and preventing future ones.
“It’s pretty now,” Mayor Matheson said, “but we have to keep it that way.” He told the media when he was approached that people were asking him “what’s the smell.” He said he feels confident that the City of Valdosta’s utilities department is doing all it can (see video above). He also said they were going to work on signage.
When asked how it felt, to be in the position he’s in, he paused, looked down at the water for a moment.
“It feels like I can make a change,” he said.