River group issues warning on water quality in Oconee River

Recent testing of water quality in the Oconee River near Dublin revealed high levels of potentially dangerous bacteria, a Georgia river watch group said Wednesday.

“We have serious concerns over the water quality in the Oconee River near Dublin. Ten months of water sampling results taken at five different stations on the river indicate high counts of coliform and non-fecal coliform bacteria, which may threaten human health and the ecosystem,” Altamaha Riverkeeper James Holland said in a statement.

The findings come less than a year after state scientists took similar samplings along the river and determined that there was nothing hazardous or unusual about the water.

Scrutiny of the Oconee began last summer when sportsmen near Dublin reported noticing a high number of fish with bloody lesions and gill deformities, dead fish and other water animals behaving strangely.

Wednesday, Holland said his office, along with the Lauren’s County Sportsmen’s Club, also began monitoring the river water about that time.

“Fishermen also reported the disappearance of birds and turtles in certain areas, and noted the once abundant population of mussels was gone,” he said.

Monthly, river samples were collected and analyzed by Brian Rood, who teaches chemistry, earth and environmental science at Mercer University.

Rood said he found escalated concentrations of bacteria in the Dublin sampling area — about four miles of river between Buckeye Landing and the section downstream from the Interstate 16 bridge.

“The samplings indicate very high concentrations of fecal and non-fecal coliform bacteria. The counts are 30 to 40 times higher than similar segments on the Ocmulgee River,” Rood said in the statement. “Although we don’t know the identity of the specific species of bacteria, we can certainly say there is a distinct risk there are microorganisms among them. The statistics show whenever you have very high bacteria counts, you have dramatic increases in the likelihood that there are actually pathogenic bacteria/viruses in the water.”

Holland said he contacted the state Environmental Protection Division this week to report the organization’s new findings and to urge the agency to follow up on its 2008 survey. “We sent a letter to Carol Couch, director of the EPD. They need to do their own testing, try to locate sources and get it stopped,” Holland said. “A one-day testing in a river like the Oconee River is not enough.

“We’ve offered to turn over our documents and assist in any way we can.”

Following the heightened concerns last year, the state also began sampling the Oconee River fish population to assess the occurrence of fish diseases.

Fish were collected from the Beaverdam Wildlife Management Area north of Dublin downriver to the Pete Davis Landing near Mount Vernon. The Department of Natural Resources, along with EPD and scientists from Auburn University, examined the samplings that were taken by electroshocking the water and collecting random groupings of various fish species.

“A combination of natural issues — drought, naturally occurring bacteria and fish stressed from spawning — could all lead to this somewhat unusual concentration of fish that appear unhealthy,” John Biagi, fisheries chief for the division, said last year. “And while these fish may look unpleasant, none of the pathogens we are finding pose a threat to public health.”

Representatives from the DNR did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Holland advised river visitors to be cautious about using the Oconee because testing is ongoing.

“When you have these high concentrations, the chances that there are other pathogens and viruses are very high,” he said. “What we’re suggesting and trying to tell the people is (that) if you’re going to use the river, use it with caution. Avoid swallowing the water, or exposing ears, eyes and open lesions to it.

“For the average fisherman, they should be cautious also when handling fish. As for eating the fish, I cannot make a scientific statement one way or the other,” he said. “Personally, I would not eat the fish out of that section of the river.”

Pending additional funding, the organization plans to continue testing in the Oconee, Holland said, and will start researching river animals as the river waters continue warming up.

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.

To contact writer Ashley Tusan Joyner, call 744-4347.