Valdosta Daily Times

February 28, 2013

Withlacoochee flooding causes major treatment plant spill

Safety hazards expected to continue until waters recede

Jason Schaefer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The eight to 10 inches of rain coupled with rainwater from upstream caused the Withlacoochee River to swell to high flow conditions Wednesday afternoon, causing a major wastewater spill at the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant.

At the plant, floodwaters continued to rise and encroach onto plant property Wednesday afternoon, causing inflow of an effluent pipe that runs downhill into the river. Workers on scene guessed the floodwaters were rising at about four to six inches per hour, and they did not expect them to recede soon.

The City expects inflow into the system and the major spill of wastewater to continue until the floodwaters recede, according to a statement from the office of the City Manager.

The waters should rise another seven feet in the next two to three days,  reaching levels about the same as those experienced during the 2009 flood, according to Utilities Director Henry Hicks.

The inflow has placed low-lying portions of the sewer system and plant completely underwater, spreading contaminants into the river. While Valdosta’s drinking water will not be affected by the conditions, swimming, fishing and boating along the river have been deemed unsafe until the river recedes.

“There’s a lot of fecal coliform in the river because of the spills,” Hicks said. “The total suspended solids are high. That doesn’t mean you’re putting raw sewage into the water—it’s treated solids—but it’s not completely disinfected.”

The suspended solids spilling into the river have higher bacteria levels than normal because they have not been completely treated, Hicks said. But higher bacteria levels would exist in the floodwaters anyway were the treatment plant still able to handle the load.

“When you have a rain like this, the bacteria extremes go higher because the amount of rainfall washes off fecal material of wildlife, farm animals and other things,” Hicks said. “I’m not saying that sewers don’t contribute to it, just that it’s part of the natural process.”

Hicks expects the water to rise to the base of the dam at the plant. Manholes in several areas are already underwater, as is a 54- inch gravity main, the largest main in the system, he said.

The Withlacoochee has crested in Adel and that water will travel south to Valdosta in the next few days, Hicks said, rendering more than 50 percent of the plant inoperable.

“We’re taking in river water, and the plant can’t cope with that,” Hicks said. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Upstream and downstream water sampling along the Withlacoochee to detect the level of contaminants has begun. Costs associated with repairs and fines from regulatory agencies cannot be measured until after the flood, Hicks said.

“It’s not going to be as bad as 2009, but it’s going to be close to it,” Hicks said.

The city is hoping to rebuild and relocate the plant as it is now operating outside limits set for water quality. City officials are in negotiations with county officials to split a potential SPLOST to give the city a much larger percentage of the money that would be collected from the one cent tax.

The City has also worked through the local legislative delegation to see if they can put a MOST, or municipal option sales tax, on the ballot in November or next year, in case SPLOST fails again or the county and other municipalities are unwilling to donate a portion of their share to the city.

The wastewater treatment plant is 40 years old and seriously deteriorated to the point that several areas of the plant are no longer usable. The city has been experiencing issues with the plant for a number of years, which were brought to the forefront by the flood of 2009.