The Valdosta, Georgia wastewater plant has long been the center of controversy over sewage spills into nearby creeks. This is a concern for the Suwannee River Water Management District because the spills go into creeks that are tributaries of the Suwannee River, upstream in Florida. There have been around 50 spills in the past several years, prompting, at one time, a joint meeting between the SRWMD and officials from Valdosta. The new plant, recently completed, gave hope but the spills continued.
Merrillee requested a visit and tour of the Valdosta facility and this took place on Wednesday, October 3, organized and executed by WWALS Watershed Coalition member and Suwannee RiverKeeper John Quarterman.
In addition to Merrillee, those attending included Our Santa Fe River members President Mike Roth and board member Jim Tatum, as well as two staff representatives from SRWMD, John Quarterman, a commissioner from Madison Co. and some interested local individuals.
Representatives of the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council (NCFRPC) did not attend, even though Merrillee went before them at their meeting on Sept. 27 to personally invite them.
The Council had a strong interest in the Valdosta spills, as seen by a letter penned by their Executive Director Scott Koons to the Council Members recommending the establishment of a Task Force within the Council to “…develop a strategic action plan to address the issue of raw sewage spills by the City of Valdosta, Georgia.”
The NCFRPC holds session on Sept. 27 and Merrillee spoke then to invite them to the City of Valdosta Water Treatment Plant.
Unfortunately, there were several errors in the letter, including the number of gallons spilled and perhaps others regarding the point of origin of fecal coliform bacteria and the status of the effluent released.
Spills did occur in June and August of this year. According to the water plant authorities, neither involved raw sewage, although one was allowed to continue for over three hours when it should have been shut down immediately. These spills were attributed to equipment failure in one case, and a clogged grating over a drain in the other. The grate has since been redesigned to avoid similar clogs in the future.
Additionally, Georgia currently has no system of instant or rapid reporting of spills to the public, which has resulted in John Quarterman, the Suwannee Riverkeeper, to promote a “Resolution Requesting the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to Timely Publish Pollution Spill Reports.” Treatment plant authorities also explained that the fecal coliform bacteria present in nearby river and creek systems are not from the water plant, but from somewhere upstream. Suspected sources are horse farms, and further testing is ongoing to determine the source. WWALS is also participating in this water testing.
Water samples are routinely tested for content. Treated water is emptied directly into nearby streams. A sludge press removes water from the treated solids. The dry, odorless and bacteria-free sludge is stored in huge landfills that resemble the size of phosphate gypstacks. Numerous pipes tap the landfill for methane, which is used for energy.
The debriefing after the tour. It was intensive, four hours in the sun with lots of stairs to climb and stench wafting in the light breeze.
Florida is not immune to our own wastewater releases at our treatment plants which the Georgia staff were quick to point out.
This tour also helped to solidify an ongoing relationship with staff at the SRWMD which was utilized during the recent Hurricane Michael storm event.