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Officials warn of Suwannee bacterial contamination

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FDEP testing throughout week

By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

State health officials are warning area residents to stay out of the Suwannee River because of potential contamination from an upstream sewage plant.

The Withlacoochee Water Pollution Control Plant, in Valdosta, Ga., shut down Feb. 27 due to massive flooding from rain in the area, said City of Valdosta spokersperson Sementha Mathews Monday.

The city-run plant was intentionally shut down for three days, she said, which allowed between 15 and 20 million gallons of untreated wastewater mixed with rainwater — enough to fill 24 Olympic-sized swimming pools —to make its way down the Withlacoochee River.

Predictions from Suwannee River Water Management District staff puts the potentially contaminated water in the Suwannee, which is partially fed by the Withlacoochee, at Fanning Springs early next week.

"It's unfortunate. It's definitely not something we want to bring to our neighbors down south," Mathews said. "We just had a lot of water come down at one time. It was a big impact."

The Florida Department of Health is urging people to stay out of the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers until testing can be completed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The potential health threat from the contamination from sewage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, includes gastro-intestinal disorders, hepatitis, skin, ear and respiratory infections.

Dee Ann Miller, of FDEP, stated in an email that the agency started testing Monday and "may sample potentially 2 sites on the Withlacoochee and 1 site on the Suwannee ..." Results, based on monitoring every two days, would be known later in the week. The City of Valdosta is doing some testing, as well, she wrote.

The latest spill isn't a first for the Valdosta plant. In 2009, the sewage treatment facility was shut down for nine days after flood waters inundated various equipment rooms. Although there was a lot of damage to the facility, no sewage was released into the river.

Later, new by-pass pumps and valves were installed to help combat flooding. A berm, which previously only protected a pumping station at the plant, was also rebuilt and made bigger, helping to prevent damage to several other systems that were damaged in the 2009 flood, according to a city press release.

Mathews said that back then the plant was about halfway submerged beneath floodwaters. This time, the plant was only about one quarter under water. Water levels, at 32 feet, were almost 20 feet higher than flood stage, she said.

Save Our Suwannee's Annette Long isn't happy about the untreated water making its way to the Suwannee.

"Everybody's just like, 'Oh yeah, it happens all the time," she said. "But there has to be consequences .... What I want to know is what are the effects on the gulf. What are the effects on fish?"

Leslie Sturmer, a University of Florida extension agent for the school's aquaculture program, said Monday there is a concern for shellfish, which are filter feeders, in Cedar Key, but, she added, shellfish are managed to be safe.

"We have checks and balances built into the system," she said. "Public health and safety is the No. 1 concern."

Sturmer said Monday a precautionary closure in the Suwannee Sound was being issued later in the evening, pending tests Tuesday for fecal coliform, a bacteria tested for in such scenarios. Results from Tuesday's testing would probably be known by Wednesday, she said.