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How much bacteria is in Flat Creek following 2-million-gallon sewage spill? The data is in
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Dale Caldwell, headwaters director at Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, takes a water sample from Flat Creek on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, after weekend rains caused a 2 million-gallon sewage spill in the creek. - photo by Thomas Hartwell

Following a sewage spill of an estimated 2 million gallons into Flat Creek Sunday, testing showed significantly high levels of bacteria in the water downstream from the spill. 

The raw sewage overflowed into Flat Creek after a pump failure at the Flat Creek Water Reclamation Facility during the weekend’s heavy rains, according to Gainesville Water Resources. 

The department tested for fecal coliform bacteria on Sunday and Monday and reported those results Tuesday afternoon.

For a free-flowing stream not for recreational use, levels should be below 500 coli per 100 milliliters, Brian Wiley, environmental services manager with Gainesville Water Resources said.  

Fecal coliform are a group of bacteria found in fecal excrement of humans and other warm-blooded animals. 

Dale Caldwell, headwaters director for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, also tested two locations on Flat Creek Tuesday, one near the reclamation facility and one near McEver Road, closer to where the creek flows into Lake Lanier. Caldwell said Wednesday that near the reclamation facility, the results returned 5,580 units per 100 milliliters, and near McEver, the results were 3,220 units per 100 milliliters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that levels be below 235 units per 100 milliliters for recreational use, Caldwell said. E. coli is a sub-group of the fecal coliform group.

Along Flat Creek near the reclamation facility, there were no visible signs of a sewage spill Tuesday afternoon. A sign informing of the spill had been posted nearby. While a sewage smell was not noticeable closer to the facility, Caldwell said he noticed an odor at the creek where it flows under McEver Road closer to Lanier. Shady conditions there could have left the area humid and damp, prolonging the smell, he said.

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is still awaiting its test results of E. coli levels in the water. 

Caldwell recommended that people stay out of the water for several days, until test results show E. coli levels have dropped to a safer level. Contact with E. coli can be detrimental to human health, leading to gastrointestinal issues, and Caldwell said the effects vary based on the person and his or her immune system. Spills also negatively affect wildlife, lowering dissolved oxygen levels for them, he said.  

Gainesville Water Resources on Sunday and Monday tested dissolved oxygen as well as pH upstream and downstream from the spill. 

Operators at the facility on Old Flowery Branch Road first discovered the failure of the influent pumps at about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 11. Records from the facility show that almost 5 inches of rain fell there between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. overnight Saturday into Sunday morning. 

The pumps failed when they were overwhelmed by more than 10 feet of water, according to a news release. Three temporary pumps were being used at the site as of Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 13.  

Gainesville Water Resources believes the affected areas are along Flat Creek for about two miles upstream of Lake Lanier, according to the news release. As of Tuesday afternoon, all incoming flow was being pumped to the water reclamation facility and no overflows were occurring, Water Resources Director Linda MacGregor said.  

The heavy rains make it more difficult to estimate the size of the spill, although Gainesville Water Resources estimates it was more than 2 million gallons. 

“Due to the magnitude of this event, it took our staff several hours just to be able to access the flooded pump station and surrounding area to assess the problem and begin the appropriate corrective actions,” MacGregor said in a statement. 

MacGregor said the high amount of rain the area saw late Saturday and Sunday strained the system.  

“The intensity of the rain is what impacts us, so if we get a light rain over a long period of time, that’s easier to handle than if we get the same amount of rain in a very short amount of time,” she told The Times.  

MacGregor said Gainesville Water Resources is working on a master plan to map out improvements at the Flat Creek facility.  

Beginning in January 2022, water rates will go up 1.9% every year for 10 years, with the extra funds being used to pay for infrastructure improvements there and at other water system facilities.  

Caldwell said he supports investments like Gainesville’s 10-year plan to improve its water system, as better infrastructure can prevent spills. However, even state-of-the-art equipment cannot always handle extreme weather like what the region saw over the weekend. 

MacGregor said staff is still evaluating needed repairs or equipment replacement, and there is not yet an estimate for the project timeline or cost.  

“It’s just now getting dried out so we can get in there and start looking at it,” she said Tuesday afternoon. 

The temporary pumps will stay in place until the equipment at the facility can be repaired. 

Several roads also remained closed across Hall County following washouts caused by the heavy rain, and Lake Lanier stood above 1,074, full of not only water but debris and sediment. The debris trap on Flat Creek near the facility was filled with logs and tree branches Tuesday afternoon. The trap was installed in December 2015 by Gainesville and Hall County. Caldwell said it is usually filled with plastic rather than woody debris, but the weekend’s storms brought logs and branches into the area’s waterways. 

The pumps failed when they were overwhelmed by more than 10 feet of water, according to a news release. Three temporary pumps were being used at the site as of Monday morning, Oct. 12.  

Gainesville Water Resources believes the affected areas are along Flat Creek for about two miles upstream of Lake Lanier, according to the news release. As of 10 a.m. Monday, all incoming flow was being pumped to the water reclamation facility and no overflows were occurring.  

The heavy rains make it more difficult to estimate the size of the spill, although Gainesville Water Resources estimates it was more than 2 million gallons. 

“Due to the magnitude of this event, it took our staff several hours just to be able to access the flooded pump station and surrounding area to assess the problem and begin the appropriate corrective actions,” Water Resources Director Linda MacGregor said in a statement. 

Water quality tests show the water is within state water quality standards, according to the news release. 

Dale Caldwell, headwaters director for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, also tested two locations on Flat Creek Tuesday, one near the reclamation facility and one near McEver Road, closer to where the creek flows into Lake Lanier. The nonprofit environmental advocacy group is still awaiting its test results. 

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