LIVE OAK, Fla. — Moving to the area three years ago, Jim McBrayer had his well near the Suwannee River in Hamilton County tested.
It came back positive for E. coli, leading McBrayer to have a water infiltration system installed.
That system failed following a wastewater spill from the City of Valdosta just a week later.
After replacing it with another system, McBrayer wasn’t in the mood to hear a Suwannee River Water Management District board member ask a Valdosta representative at a Feb. 12 board meeting just how bad the spills are.
“This is totally unacceptable,” McBrayer said. “When someone on this board is asking how bad is it. That’s unacceptable to me. You guys need to know how bad it is. You’re representing us. You’re the party that protects us from this kind of situation.
“I’m sorry to do that. When I was in the Army, I had responsibility to fix (problems). I would hope you’d do the same.”
The Valdosta representative, Utilities Director Darryl Muse, attended the SRWMD board meeting following two well-publicized spills in December following heavy rains.
Muse told the board, as well as a meeting room full of concerned area residents, that while the spills are a long-standing problem, the city is hard at work trying to find solutions.
The city opened the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant in 2016 and is currently constructing an additional retention basin at the plant to help with storm surge following future heavy rains.
Muse said the city is working on long-term solutions to eliminate issues within its collection system, too: fixing pipes that have failed through the years as well as repairing manhole covers.
“If nothing else comes out of this, I want everyone to know that we hear what you’re saying,” Muse said about the perception that Valdosta is not concerned with the effect that spills have in Florida. “We care about what’s happening and we want to do something to address it.
“We have an economic impact as well. The Withlacoochee (River) runs through Lowndes County on its way to Florida. We’re concerned about that. It’s important to us.”
Still, while appreciative of the efforts Valdosta is putting into addressing the issues — Muse said the city has spent $170 million on its wastewater system during the past 15 years — board member Virginia Sanchez expressed concern with those long-term fixes. She noted the city’s current pace of fixing the system’s piping would take nearly 300 years to complete as well as another 180-plus years to complete the manhole cover repairs.
“It’s just not enough,” Sanchez said of those efforts, adding the city has had approximately 100 spills the past three years, according to Muse. “To be quite frank, if you were a private company, you would be shut down. With this type of track record, you would be shut down and out of business because you couldn’t afford the fines and the penalties that the state would put on you.
“I don’t understand how a public utility or government agency is held to a different standard than a private business.”
Muse said the problems Valdosta is encountering are not unique to the town. He said all municipalities have constant repairs and upgrades needed and numerous other towns across South Georgia have spills, too. Valdosta, though, he added is located closer to rivers than most of the others.
John Quarterman, the Suwannee Riverkeeper and president of the WWALS Watershed Coalition, said while other cities do have spills, Valdosta had more spill locations in December than the rest of the state of Georgia combined, according to data from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
“Valdosta, being the largest city in the entire Suwannee River basin by far, it also has the largest responsibility to fix its problems,” Quarterman said.
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, a business owner in Fort White and a founding member of Our Santa Fe River, said one way to identify the extent of the spills would be increased water quality testing to establish a baseline study of the river’s quality. Then compare that information with samples pulled following spills.
In answering board member Donald Quincey Jr.’s query of how much of an impact the spills have, Muse said it wasn’t as bad as people believe.
“I don’t want to sit here and say it’s insignificant, but the data itself, the scientific data suggests that the colonies are significantly reduced by the time it gets to the stream,” Muse said, also adding the Withlacoochee plant is more than two miles away from the river. “The numbers suggest that it’s a low impact.”
Sanchez disagreed. She said regardless of the data, any wastewater spill is significant.
“You don’t want to swim in a little sewage versus a lot of sewage either,” she said. “Both of them are bad. A spill is bad.”
McBrayer and his neighbor Arthur McMillan agreed.
“This river is the most dangerous thing in this county,” McMillan said, adding numerous people on their street have been infected by E. coli from the river.
“I like Valdosta’s sign up there, ‘A city without limits.’ I wish they’d limit their sewage.”