Bacterial testing of river water a new feature of Float on the Flint this autumn

By David Pendered

The fifth annual Fall Float on the Flint River event this autumn offers a new attraction – the monitoring of bacterial levels in the river in light of the release of up to 1 million gallons of raw sewage into the river this summer from sewage facilities in Albany.

Water canons wielded by children were part of the scene at the Float Down the Flint event last year, in which more than 120 paddlers made the three-day trek over Columbus Day weekend. Credit: garivers.org

The Flint Riverkeeper began monitoring bacterial levels south of Albany in mid July, according to a statement from the Georgia River Network.

The monitoring will continue through the Float Down the Flint event, a 48-mile trip scheduled for Oct. 6 through Oct. 8. The trip is to begin at Baconton, a short distance downstream from Albany, and terminate near Bainbridge.

Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers said Thursday that Albany is plagued by a sewer system similar to the one in Atlanta. The environmental woes resulting from Atlanta’s vintage-early-1900s early system landed the city in federal court and resulted in a consent decree costing in the billions of dollars.

Albany’s sewage treatment system releases untreated wastewater into the state’s waters virtually every time it rains, Rogers said. The city’s permit allows such discharges every time the rainfall amount exceeds 0.19 inches per hour, Rogers said.

In addition to the routine discharge of untreated sewage during rain events, Albany’s sewage treatment systems experience equipment failures that release u8ntreated wastewater into the state’s waterways. That’s what happened when 870,000 gallons of untreated sewage was released on May 20, according to a statement from the city. An additional 195,000 gallons of untreated sewage was released July 5 and a portion of it flowed into the river, according to a statement from the city.

Rogers said the riverkeeper organization hopes to work amicably with the city to resolve the situation. Given that Atlanta’s leaky system isn’t to be refurbished until 2027, he said Albany’s situation won’t be a quick fix:

flint river float 2018, locator map

Bacterial counts will be provided for the first time on the fifth annual Float Down the Flint River event because of ongoing concerns about raw sewage being released by Albany into the river system. Credit: garivers.org

  • “We are cautiously optimistic we can work with them and get this done without an Atlanta-style litigation. They’re going to report results [of engineering studies] in late August or early September, and we’re taking them at their word that they will be transparent and work it out and be proactive.
  • “Meantime, every time it rains we get a slug of this stuff even if there’s not a pump failure. Pump failures get the headlines. CSO’s are not getting the headlines.”

In Atlanta, the city continues to dump raw sewage into state waters even as it continues to upgrade the system in accordance with the consent decree.

Here’s how the situation was summed up in a May 30 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

  • “Atlanta’s CSO [combined sewer overflow] system continues to experience periodic violations of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits due to high levels of fecal coliform, operations-related errors leading to high levels of chlorine in treated wastewaters, and missed water quality tests.
  • “SSOs [sanitary sewer overflows] continue to occur and pose risks to human health and the environment.
  • “Untreated household and human waste continues to be released into city streets and surface waters during SSO events.”

Note to readers: To learn more about the Paddle Georgia Fall Float on the Flint River event, visit the registration page on Paddle Georgia’s website. 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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