In the last seven months, heavy rains and aging wastewater facilities in Georgia have been the cause behind the release of about 37 million gallons of wastewater into the south-flowing Withlacoochee River.
About 12 million gallons of that happened early last week when, similar to two other occasions, flood waters put too much of a strain on the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant, run by the City of Valdosta. The city’s plant, contributing to the bulk of the mishaps this year, also had spills in February and at the end of July. Lowndes County took the blame for a 1.3 million gallon spill in April when a busted pipe leaked untreated waste into the river.
“With the rain and everything… it’s just another unfortunate event,” said City of Valdosta spokesperson Sementha Mathews not long after the third spill in July.
In each case, tests were done by Florida and Georgia environmental protection departments, and the Florida Department of Health issued statements cautioning people against contact with water from the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers.
The wastewater has varied in its level of treatment, sometimes being mostly untreated sewage and at other times being partially treated sewage and rainwater. Mathews said Friday that the latest spill was mostly rainwater runoff and treated wastewater, though water sampling in Georgia showed suspended solids in the water to be more than 1.5 times the allowed state levels, just like levels had shown in earlier incidents.
In all four cases, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has claimed its samplings have shown acceptable levels of the dangerous coliform bacteria, often crediting high waters for quick removal and dispersal of potential bacteria.
“Even if no one gets sick from the feces bacteria, we are still stuck with the nitrates and phosphates that are suspended in the water column from the spill,” said Save Our Suwannee spokesperson Annette Long.
Parts of the Suwannee River, much like many springs and other waterways in Florida, have already been labeled as impaired because of high nitrate levels. In rural areas such as Levy County, those nitrates are mostly attributed to agriculture.
“If there are no consequences, will they ever clean it up?” Long said about the polluted water. “In Florida, everyone lives downstream from someone. In Georgia they do, too, unless they live on top of a mountain and collect rainfall to drink.”
The U.S. Environmental protection Agency considers spills and releases as an emergency due to weather conditions, Long said. “We built sewage plants on rivers so that the waste could easily be rushed downstream. A very long time ago, when there were few making sewage and only a few drinking from the rivers, that worked just fine.”
But nowadays, as populations and developments have swelled, she said, the systems don’t work.
“The Clean Water Act should protect us, but it only counts if someone drinks the water. Since there is no municipality that consumes water from the Withlacoochee downstream from the plant, it’s not an official public health crisis.”
Still, according to Mathews, Valdosta is working on a plan, The State of Georgia is forcing them to comply with standards, and plans have been made to relocate the Valdosta plant to a higher elevation about 60 feet away from its current location. A City of Valdosta press release states that the new facility will cost about $20 million and should be completed by Aug., 2015. Loans and grants have already been secured, Mathews said, but the county is hoping to pass a new 1 cent tax to help Valdosta pay back what it will owe.
“We’re all hopeful that it will pass,” she said.
In the meantime, Mathews said, the city is working on seven smaller projects — such as creating more holding tanks and undertaking a study to determine the causes of flooding issues — to help lessen the chances that another flood will cause the waste facility to have an accident. These projects, according to staff, should be finished within the next several months.
”City officials are hopeful that the short-term projects will provide the relief needed to minimize and avoid any further permit violations until the relocation of the WWTP is accomplished,” a Valdosta press release stated.
“I just hope the plant relocation takes into account karst (porous rock such as limestone) features and doesn’t plan to inject secondarily treated effluent into the groundwater,” Long said. “The same karst that feeds the springs is in Southern Georgia. Most of the Wakulla Springshed is in Georgia, as is a lot of Madison Blue Springshed. Also, the Alapaha and Withlacoochee rivers go underground and resurface in Florida.”
Long said she hopes the city is planning to re-use the waste solid or convert it to biofuels or, at the very least, put it in a location where it can’t easily affect rivers and aquifers.
People don’t get “that when they flush the toilet it doesn’t just disappear.”