After a rainy day in Georgia, a walk through Lakebottom Park can be a breeze.
Breezing through there years ago, I saw two little boys under a bridge, neck-deep in Weracoba Creek. They were treading water, taking it into their mouths and spitting.
“Hey! That creek’s polluted, you know,” I told them.
“No it’s not,” said one. “No it’s not,” repeated the other.
“Ha!” I snorted and said, “OK then,” and walked on.
“Ha! OK then,” mimicked one. “Ha! OK then,” echoed the other.
You hate to wish kids would catch a waterborne illness, so I tried not to.
I quit warning kids to stay out of the creek, after that. Still I wonder if we should warn kids to stay out of the creek.
I wondered that Wednesday at the Columbus Water Works, as I heard research on its effort to clean up Weracoba and Roaring Branch creeks.
The problem with Roaring Branch was so much of its watershed is paved that storm water — and all the parking lot pollutants it picks up — went roaring right down the branch, stirring silt and dumping sediment into Lake Oliver, from which Columbus draws its drinking water.
Roaring Branch was the focus of Wednesday’s water-quality workshop. A pond with a flow-regulating outlet was built off Bradley Park Drive to store storm runoff and slow the water velocity downstream, and the creek since has improved.
The problem with Weracoba Creek was that it was polluted — so polluted that the Columbus Water Works built a high-tech treatment facility at Cherokee Avenue and Garrard Street to screen and sanitize the stream. In a year this has reduced by 35 percent the sediment and by 80 percent the fecal coliform flowing downstream. The rate at which the creek exceeds water-quality standards during testing has dropped from 60 percent to 10 percent.
So that facility, which uses fiber balls to filter the water and ultraviolet light to sanitize it, has made a big difference — at least in cleaning the creek just south of Garrard Street, where it runs past the Lakebottom Park playground.
But farther south, below 17th Street, the creek’s water quality again declines, and cycles daily, worsening in the morning and afternoon.
That’s no surprise to Troy Keller, an assistant professor in Columbus State University’s environmental science program. He bicycles, and on cold mornings sees steam rising through caps on storm drains beneath the street — drains that eventually empty into the creek.
He knows why steam would come from a storm sewer on a cold day: household sewage. Untreated water from a bathroom or kitchen’s draining in. That would pick up in the morning and afternoon, fitting a daily routine.
So, the creek’s getting better, but it’s still polluted. Should kids play in it now?
No, said James Banning, a University of South Florida environmental science graduate. He was here checking creeks for macro invertebrates, the aquatic critters by whose species and population a stream’s health can be gauged. Banning said he walked the creek, and just the broken glass in it is enough to warrant keeping kids out.
Erik Oij, a USF grad student, agreed. He said 35 pipes from nearby roads and neighborhoods drain into the creek, dumping bacteria and other pollutants. Plus he saw a water moccasin in it.
Mark Boner, an environmental engineer who gave an overview of Water Works’ creek projects Wednesday, said a heavy rain can flush more bacteria downstream and build up dangerous force in the creek. “When the water’s turbid, you don’t want to go swimming in it,” he said.
Boner’s with Wet Weather Engineering & Technology of Roswell, Ga. He said much of the fecal coliform in Weracoba could be coming from animals who live in and around the creek or its drain pipes — rats and raccoons, for example, and dogs and cats that defecate where their waste washes in.
But kids often play in creeks with no ill effects, so maybe they’re not usually in any immediate danger if they get a little fecal coliform on them.
Some folks think creek warning signs should be posted, but design a sign that says “Caution: Bacteria,” and you can post that most anywhere (your kitchen, your bathroom, your mouth, etc.).
If you let your kids play in the creek, you might want to make sure they wear shoes, don’t drink the water, and get cleaned up afterward.
Unless they talk back to you. Then let ’em swim at their own risk.