Volunteers with the Upper Oconee Watershed Network have found excessively high levels of E. coli bacteria in a water sample drawn late last week from the unnamed tributary to Barber Creek that received raw sewage from a spill on Aug. 21.
The volunteers also reported excessively high and roughly equal levels of the bacteria in Barber Creek itself below the inflow from the tributary and upstream from the inflow from the tributary, suggesting that the spill has not had lasting negative impact on Barber Creek.
The county did not provide data on the impact of the spill on the small tributary, which flows above ground only a short distance before reaching Barber Creek just downstream from the new Mars Hill Road bridge.
The county also tested for fecal coliform, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency holds is a “poor indicator” of health risk from recreational water contact involving fresh water though it is still commonly used–with a higher standard--as a measure of contamination of drinking water.
Bridge Over Tributary
Barber Creek flows through a number of neighborhoods downstream from the site of the spill before reaching and joining McNutt Creek, which is a tributary of the Middle Oconee River.
A number of neighborhoods incorporate Barber Creek into their amenity areas, and pets and children play in the creek.
|Samples Drawn Here|
The unnamed tributary to Barber Creek into which the sewage from the spill flowed runs through the middle of Barber Creek Corporate Park, a partially completed office park at Barber Creek Drive east of Mars Hill Road at Barber Creek.
The county posted a sign after the spill at a bridge over the unnamed tributary inside the business park warning anyone who read it to “avoid contact with waterway and area beyond this sign.”
The sign was still there Saturday.
Upper Oconee Watershed Network volunteers, led by retired Oconee County science teacher Vicki Soutar, drew samples from just north of the bridge in the business park as well as from Barber Creek itself on Sept. 1.
One of the Barber Creek sites was above the tributary and upstream from the new bridge. The other Barber Creek site was downstream from the tributary.
University of Georgia’s Feed and Environmental Water Laboratory analyzed those samples that same day and reported on Sept. 2 that fecal coliform was higher upstream from the tributary than below it. The count for the tributary was between the two readings on Barber Creek itself.
The actual numbers were 300 MPN per 100 milliliter downstream, 1,100 MPN per 100 milliliter upstream, and 800 MPD per 100 milliliter on the tributary. MPN stands for Most Probable Number and is an estimate of colony forming units of bacteria.
Oconee County had drawn four samples from Barber Creek on the date of the spill and reported Fecal Coliform Units per 100 milliliters of 300 and 240 upstream and 480 and 180 downstream.
The county said the data gathered showed “no adverse effects to the water quality.”
Fecal coliforms, a subset of total coliform bacteria, are more fecal-specific in origin than total coliform but do include species that are not necessarily fecal in origin, according to the EPA.
The Agency recommends monitoring E. coli bacteria as a better indicator of health risk from water contact.
Soutar actually had asked that the UGA lab analyze for E. coli, so she returned to the three sites on Sept. 3 and drew new samples.
On Sept. 4, the UGA lab reported that the site on Barber Creek downstream from the unnamed tributary had a count of 471 MPN per 100 milliliters.
The Barber Creek site upstream from the tributary had a count of 459 MPN per 100 milliliters.
The sample drawn from the tributary in the business park had a count of 985 MPD per 100 milliliters.
The U.S. EPA recommends 235 MPN per 100 milliliters “in recreational water (swimming and bathing),” according to the UGA lab report.
Location of Spill
Jenanne White, administrative assistant in the Utility Department, told me in an email message on Aug. 26 that the contractor who is moving the water and sewer lines on Mars Hill Road “hit the force main at the corner of Mars Hill and Daniells Bridge Road causing a break in the line.”
Mars Hill Road is being widened, and there is extensive work underway in the section of the project between SR 316 and Hodges Mill Road, which includes the two bridges that will span Barber Creek.
|Sign Says Stay Away|
White wrote that “The spillage went into the storm drainage system leading to the creek at the corner of Barber Creek Drive and Mars Hill Road.”
White was responding to an email message I sent her, and she copied her response to Utility Department Director Wayne Haynie and Oconee County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko, who has oversight responsibility for the Utility Department.
No More Testing
Utility Department Director Haynie told Apryl Singer, Oconee County environmental health specialist, in a letter on Aug. 24 that, since the tests conducted on Aug. 21 showed no adverse effects to water quality, “in accordance with state and local regulations, no additional testing is required.”
UOWN, a volunteer group dedicated to protecting water resources and improving stream health through community-based advocacy, monitoring, education, and recreation, decided after announcement of the spill on Aug. 21 to do its own monitoring.
The group also has called a meeting for from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 24 in the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville to “discuss concerns about the importance of water quality for Oconee streams.”
The group has produced a flier announcing the meeting and is distributing it around the county.
UOWN also sprang into action after the county announced a series of problems with its Calls Creek wastewater treatment facility on May 26.
The county made the announcement a month after a citizen provided video showing what appears to be the discharge of raw sewage into the creek, which flows through neighborhoods between Watkinsville and the Middle Oconee River.
Bruno Giri, president of UOWN, and Soutar drew two samples from each four sites along Calls Creek on June 5. They also took two samples at the wastewater plant itself.
The data showed no lasting impact of the discharges into Calls Creek from the sewage plant, based on the E. coli criterion.
OUWN volunteers repeated sampling from two sites on Calls Creek on July 12.
Those results show a count of 25 E. coli CFUs at Harris Shoals on Calls Creek upstream from the plant and 235 CFUs where Hickory Hill Drive crosses Calls Creek considerably downstream from the sewage plant.
A CFU is a colony-forming unit and is used to estimate the number of viable bacteria in a sample. If the cell is able to multiply in a culture, it is counted as viable.
Back in June, the sampling showed CFU readings of 120 and 145 at Harris Shoals and 295 and 320 at Hickory Hill Drive.
Giri, a chemist who works for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Russell Research Center in Athens, cautioned in a telephone conversation I had with him on Saturday against making exact comparisons between the MPN measure used in the analysis of the Barber Creek samples and the actual CFU count normally used by UOWN.
UOWN usually relies on Erin Lipp in the University of Georgia’s Microbiology Department for analysis of its samples.
County officials in the past have cautioned residents about the quality of the county’s streams as they discussed decisions about wastewater treatment facilities.
One oft-spoken assertion has been that the wastewater plants produce cleaner water than what is in the creeks themselves. The UOWN data from June were consistent with that assertion.
The streams flow through many old and new neighborhoods in the county, and most of those neighborhoods are on septic systems. Those systems require maintenance to operate safely and efficiently, but the county has no educational or other policy to encourage that maintenance.
A number of subdivisions along the creeks use them as parts of their amenity areas, while other subdivisions simply have built up around the streams.
One popular swimming hole in the county is on McNutt Creek just downstream for where it is joined by Barber Creek. This is just north of the bridge on Old Macon Highway, and cars lined the roadway at the site this summer
That swimming hole is frequented by residents of the many student housing complexes in the area, including Athens Ridge in Oconee County.