First annual Mayor's Paddle brings dozens on the river

Emma Wheeler | WCTV Eyewitness News
January 18, 2020

VALDOSTA, Ga. (WCTV) -- Dozens of boaters and floaters hit the Withlacoochee River in Valdosta Saturday for the inaugural Mayor's Paddle.

The event was organized as a response to ongoing sewage spills, and near constant concerns from communities downstream in North Florida.

In December more than seven million gallons spilled from a manhole near Sugar Creek.

As a partnership with WWALS Watershed Coalition, organizers are hoping to turn passion in to protection.

"The people here that are passionate about the river and the people that are having to receive the sewage over the years," said Mayor Scott James Matheson. "Obviously this shows that we care, and I'm in a very good position to still be just as mad as they are, but also in a position to do something about it."

The paddle served as a floating 'Q and A.' Starting at the Troupeville Boat Launch, boaters passed by the outflow from the water treatment plant and down to Spook Bridge. Mayor Matheson answered questions and addressed concerns about the plant, the spills and what's being done about it.

But the event was also a chance to change the stigma surrounding the Withlacoochee River. Many North Florida communities speak about lost tourism and value to homes and property along the river over the spills, and ideas that the river is lined with trash.

Among the group was several members of the Brooks County Fire Department, taking any opportunity to get in some training in a fun way.

"Kayaking down the river we'll exercise our arms, stuff like that, help control our breathing," said Firefighter Ryan Owens. "We all kind of connect and have fun inside the fire department, but when we come outside it's all another experience."

With the help of WWALS volunteers, water along the Withlacoochee has been tested and confirmed safe several times over the last week, but river advocates are hoping this kind of initiative will spark more regular, permanent testing. Valosta Mayor said he hears those concerns.

"We can do additional testing at additional spots, and we can do additional signage as well," Matheson said. "That makes a lot of sense."

The Mayor hopes for next year's paddle, the city will be one year spill free.