NOTE FROM EDITOR: This will be an ongoing series that will address various issues, ranging from coverage of public meetings, interviews with officials and concerned citizens. Valdosta Today would like to thank the sources used in this work. The majority of the research/data used in this post is directly from John S. Quarterman and his nonprofit WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc.
VALDOSTA, Ga. – Citizens of the Valdosta community and members of the 12-county Florida Task Force will have an opportunity January 8, 2019 at a public meeting held at the Valdosta City Annex at 6 p.m. to discuss with city officials Valdosta’s latest, and record-breaking, raw sewage spill which took place on December 3.
Also on Wednesday, January 8, at 1 p.m., there will be a Valdosta Sewage Meeting held in Madison, Florida, located at 184 NW College Loop, a public event reported by WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc.’s John S. Quarterman, a nonprofit established in 2012 that advocates for fishable, swimmable, drinkable water in the Suwannee River Basin, and tests regularly for contaminants. Quarterman has been instrumental in drawing attention to the City of Valdosta’s spills and the damage to the area’s rivers.
The City of Valdosta has been under fire for a recent 7.5 million gallon raw sewage spill which took four days to detect, according to City Utilities Director Darryl Muse during a special-called press conference.
In the meeting, Muse attributed the cause of the spill to “human error” made by a single unnamed contractor who had improperly handled equipment referred to as “a plug” at the Remerton station where the release occurred. “He was supposed to put a plug in,” Muse said, referring to this mishap as “ironic” since the particular station where the contractor was working was designed specifically to avoid just such emergency spills. Muse explained that once the plug was returned to its proper place the problem was solved, other than the 7.5 million gallons of raw sewage which was chugging furiously into the Withlacoochee River.
According to the city, the massive wastewater spill discharged through a manhole into Sugar Creek adjacent to the 1800 block of Norman Drive, not directly from the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant. As the crow flies, that’s about halfway between downtown and Troupville Boat Ramp.
To see exactly where the spill was, click here.
The Florida Department of Health in Hamilton and Madison counties issued a joint health advisory for residents and visitors near the Withlacoochee River, first on December 9, although that was far too early for the sewage to have reached Florida, but due to lack of process and coordination, nobody knew that.
That first advisory was lifted on December 16, because with low flow the sewage hadn’t moved much beyond Sugar Creek.
The second advisory was issues on December 20, after Valdosta told Florida Department of Health of high bacterial counts at US 84.
Valdosta did not report those high bacterial counts to the public, nor did Lowndes Health ever issue an advisory.
Regular fishermen and self-proclaimed “river rats” like Scott Boutwell and Julie Patrick in Quitman had to put away their poles.
They not only fish almost daily but spend almost all of their free time on the Withlacoochee River located near their homes. The advisory came after the City of Valdosta reported the large spill, which impacted the water quality flowing from Sugar Creek into the Withlacoochee River.
NOTE: The Florida Dept. of Health issued a Jan. 3 statement which has lifted the advisory, which you can view here.
“Georgia and Lowndes Departments of Public Health never issued any advisories about this spill,” Quarterman pointed out. “That should be addressed at the upcoming meeting. Lowndes Environmental Health did offer free well testing for both Lowndes and Brook Counties.”
GPB.org reported March 29, 2013 that over 30 million gallons of Valdosta’s “partially treated wastewater” was released into the river.
Sewage spills from the City of Valdosta are not unusual. A 300,000 gallon release was reported June 26, 2018 after almost a year and a half without one.
Almost exactly a year earlier, in December 2018, the City of Valdosta spilled more than six million gallons of raw sewage, but that was in multiple spills, and there was heavy rain. This time, there was no rain during the spill.
But this one has topped the cake, according to data released through Open Records Requests obtained by Quarterman/WWALS.
Citizens are becoming increasingly distressed by their frequency and the lack of information they are receiving by their governing bodies.
“Since moving to Valdosta in 2007, this issue has been in the news,” commented Kelly Barth McGeehan. “I cannot believe it is still a constant story. It’s absolutely ridiculous! As far as the impact to me…..Well, I really don’t want to kayak in the Withlacoochee, which is a shame because it is close and is beautiful if you do not know anything about the raw sewage.”
On December 10, 2019, the City of Valdosta released the following regarding millions of dollars to be invested in the area of water and sewage treatment:
The City of Valdosta Utilities Department has been working diligently on a number of wastewater improvements. Since 1992, the city has received $179 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds and invested in capital improvement projects (CIP). During the same timeframe, the city has expended $167 million for water/wastewater projects from SPLOST proceeds, system revenues, bonds, and Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) loans. On November 5, 2013, the SPLOST VII was approved by voters and is expected to generate about $150 million, of which Valdosta will receive an estimated $80 million. Nearly 70 percent of the funding will be dedicated to wastewater projects, which is $55.4 million. Over the next 4 years, projects that will be funded by SPLOST, system revenues, GEFA loans, etc. (which can be accessed at the below link).City of Valdosta, Sewage System Improvements
There has been an outcry among citizens both in the City of Valdosta, Lowndes County, Quitman, Berrien, as well as those who own property in Florida, and the residents of northern counties of Florida, who have created a 12-county Task Force to confront City of Valdosta officials regarding this ongoing problem.
“Finally, the Withlacoochee River is getting back to acceptable bacterial levels, a month after Valdosta’s record-largest sewage spill, which started, apparently on December 3, 2019,” said Quarterman, the Suwannee Riverkeeper, employed by WWALS. He and trained WWALS volunteers have been testing the water and what they found was disturbing.
“On Sugar Creek itself, our bacterial counts upstream and downstream were high, matching the test results we got from Valdosta by Open Record Requests,” Quarterman continued. “But downstream of U.S. 84 to the state line, we found nothing, zero counts of E. coli. This turned out to be because with no rain there was so little flow that the sewage did not get much out of Sugar Creek for about a week. Then there were rains, the sewage started flushing, and our counts jumped sky-high.”
Click here for a breakdown of the water testing results at the various testing points along Sugar Creek and the Withlacoochee and Little Rivers tested by WWALS.
“Having collated all the test data from the hardworking WWALS volunteers, from Valdosta, several Florida agencies, and even recent data from Lowndes County, Quarterman is optimistic that the recent rains are finally flushing and diluting the sewage in the Withlacoochee River enough for people to use the river again.”
Suzy (water tester for WWALS) found even higher E. coli at Knights Ferry on December 24, as Florida sampling saw a high count at GA 31 near the state line. When Suzy checked at Nankin Boat Ramp on December 26, halfway between US 84 and State Line, she found a high count, but not nearly as high as her previous Knights Ferry counts. Given that Florida found very high Fecal coliform and E. coli at the state line that same day, apparently the biggest lump of sewage was already crossing into Florida.John S. Quarterman, WWALS report on testing done since Dec. 3, 2019 spill
Rains do their magic and Mother Nature takes care of the rest, all can hope. But Quarterman and WWALS members have been watching the spill with scrutiny, and have devoted countless hours to examine its impact. At one point, Quarterman reported the following:
You can see Valdosta’s sewage going down the Withlacoochee River as the high red numbers in these composite tables WWALS has cobbled together from various data sources. Early on, the sewage apparently mostly sat in Sugar Creek downstream from the spill site, due to low water and no rain.WWALS website
Quarterman is even shooting for a WWALS-sponsored paddle on January 18, if the water by that time tests clean.
“If we get some rain in the next two weeks, we’ll be floating easy down the Withlacoochee from Troupville Boat Ramp to Spook Bridge, a route that will traverse a long stretch of the Withlacoochee that was recently polluted by the massive spill,” Quarterman said. He is quick to give a note of thanks to The Langdale Company for allowing access for testing and using their land for the paddle’s take out.
He hopes that Mayor-Elect Matheson and Lowndes County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bill Slaughter and other officials will come out to show their support.
But before that happens there will be a public meeting on January 8 at the Valdosta City Hall annex, presided over by outgoing Mayor John Gayle instead of incoming Mayor Scott James Matheson, who won’t be sworn in until the following night of January 9.
“Once again, so far as I know, you will be able to ask questions at that meeting,” Quarterman said. “I will ask some; how about you? WWALS got the testing back on December 17 through an Open Records Request. Why are we having to get Valdosta’s testing data from Florida? Why didn’t they publish it on their website.”
Mayor-elect Scott James Matheson is an eco-friendly, Valdosta-loving community member and he has been open with Quarterman about the spills and the City’s responsibility to do more to prevent them.
Speaking with Valdosta Today on Saturday night, he said:
“The paddle was requested by me and John was gracious enough to organize it and call it the ‘Mayor’s Paddle.’ It is to show my commitment to zero tolerance for future spills and to show my love for our natural resources.”City of Valdosta Mayor-Elect Scott James Matheson
“We hope this paddle will demonstrate the Withlacoochee River is clean again,” Quarterman said. “If there’s rain before the paddle, that could be the case. On the paddle you will have several hours to ask questions of the new mayor and, one hopes, other Valdosta city officials.”
Here are the spreadsheets of the contamination levels at various local spots.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts with interviews including Colbert Sturgeon, a local off-the-grid National Geographic personality who appeared in the popular series “Live Free or Die.”