How safe is the water in the Chattahoochee River?

By Sara Belsole

COLUMBUS, GA – “Because it's one of the most contaminated rivers in the country my concern is for the health and safety for the people who are kayaking and rafting,” Resident Paul Olson says.

Olson appeared in front of Columbus City Council this week to voice his concerns about bacteria found in rivers that can cause infectious disease.

So what exactly is in the Chattahoochee River? And how is it monitored?

The Georgia Environmental Protection Agency says it works with Columbus Water Works to collect samples of fecal coliform bacteria on a monthly basis.

“It is an indicator of the water being exposed to fecal matter from warm blooded animals, including human beings,” Gail Cowie, Assistant Branch Chief for the Chattahoochee, Flint, and Ochlockonee River Basins, says.

Because bacteria levels can rise quickly after a storm them drop, the EPD says the monthly monitoring may miss some high levels.

“The water generally meets our bacteria standards,” Cowie says.

During the summer and spring, that bacteria standard is 200 counts per 100 millimeters of water. Between May and October of last year, sites located upstream of the Whitewater area showed bacteria levels that ranged from 19-166 counts per 100 millimeters of water,falling within the standard.

However, downstream sites sampled during the same time period ranged from 19-892 counts per 100 milliliters of water.

Those values are above the standard, and the EPD says it will be looking at that data further. The agency says those samples are affected by storm water which carries what is called non-point pollution.

“That includes fertilizer people put on their lawns, that includes trash, oil that drips from our cars, dog waste,” Cowie says.

Joey Robinson freestyle kayaks in the Chattahoochee three to four times a week. “Sometimes I have ingested water, I have had it go up my nose, in my ears, and I have never gotten sick from the river,” he says.

The EPD says it of course never advises anyone to drink directly from the Chattahoochee and to use common sense–after storms or when the water is most cloudy is when the highest levels of bacteria are in the water.

But overall, they do deem our portion of the Chattahoochee River a safe place for kayaking and white water rafting.

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