Water quality still in question

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 31, 2014

Should the quality of water in Florala’s Lake Jackson be a concern to citizens and local officials? It’s a question that was raised earlier this summer and one that is still being hashed out between both state and independent agencies.

In late June, a report from Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, Inc., an independent water-testing group, indicated that one of three samples taken from the lake produced levels of E. coli that were 10 times higher than normal. Michael Mullen, a member of the Riverkeeper organization, said at the time that the results were likely a “one-time thing” produced from an overabundance of waterfowl, heavy rainfall or something as simple as litter. Mullen said his group has tested the lake for years and had never before turned up such alarming results.

In early July, Florala State Park manager Joe Drakkar said he and Mullen had spoken, and agreed the problem was one that would work itself out. Mullen also said he and Drakkar discussed the possibility of training city or park officials in the process of testing the lake in order for the water to be more heavily monitored.

Wednesday, Mullen once again contacted officials in Florala, expressing a concern over the lack of response to his finding; however, state officials say his results may be flawed.

In an email to both Drakkar and Florala Mayor Robert Williamson, Mullen said he now believes heavy rainfall and waterfowl to be, at least in part, the main sources of the E. coli. He also said he now believes the findings to be a continuing problem.

“Unfortunately the contamination observed in late June is not an isolated incident,” Mullen said in the email. “It can’t simply be swept under the rug and must be addressed.”

Mullen also said he is concerned about a lack of response to his findings.

“(Drakkar) indicated after the testing event found contamination in late June that he would be willing to learn how to do the testing,” Mullen said. “However, phone calls are not being returned and emails have been deleted without being read. (He) indicated that signage warning folks of contamination would be erected; signage was never put up.”

Mullen said the level of E. coli found could be hazardous to swimmers with certain medical conditions.

Despite the findings, Barbara Gibson, executive director of the Choctawhatchee, Pea and Yellow Rivers Watershed Management Authority, said she would need to see more conclusive findings – including documentation of correct testing procedures by Mullen’s group – before a conclusive determination could be reached.

“This is a one-person operation and Mr. Mullen is self-appointed,” Gibson said. “I believe he has the best of intentions. But, we have had experience with this individual in the past. We’ve had some problems with some of his testing with our agency that we had to have completely redone.”

Gibson said she is not necessarily disputing Mullen’s finding at Lake Jackson, but also said documentation of many testing procedures would be needed in order to determine the validity of the results.

“There are certain standards for testing a water sample,” she said. “You’ve got to do it in a professional, correct manner. You have to know things like, what the holding time was and how the sample was preserved. I think this man means well, but I think sometimes he’ll jump the gun.”

Gibson said the ultimate authority on the situation is the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), which, she added, monitors the waters on a rotating basis.

“ADEM monitors water quality in the state,” Gibson said. “They cannot, on a regular basis, monitor every water body in the state. They do it on a rotating basis.”

As to whether or not Mullen’s testing, or his theory concerning excessive rainfall – an occurrence monitored in southeast Alabama by the watershed authority – is correct, Gibson said she could not say definitively one way or the other.

“It would have to be very excessive,” she said of the rainfall. “If that was the case, then we would have problems in every body of water everywhere.”

While Gibson said ADEM officials are aware of the concern and are planning a water study of the lake in the near future, at least partially based on the Riverkeeper claims, Mullen said the organization won’t back down until the issue is addressed.

“Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper is not going to go away and will stay on this at some level of effort until responsible parties take reasonable, prudent actions to address the problem,” he said. “We are not out to embarrass the park system or the City of Florala. However, we will tell the truth about the problem and about ways that it might be minimized or even eliminated.”