Camden’s Horsepen Creek is now clear as a bell
Every month, Anna Laws pulls on her waterproof boots and steps out of her SUV parked on the side of a road in rural Camden County, GA. The biologist then maneuvers carefully around a homeowner’s barn and newly-created septic hill to access the tall pine forest behind.
“I have to bushwack my way through the woods,” she says. “There’s no path.”
Her destination is a tiny winding stream, where she dips a plastic bag in for a water sample. Triumphantly, she holds it up, showing the sunlight streaming through. “Look how clear it is!” she beams.
The stream is a tributary of Horsepen Creek, which flows into the St. Marys River at the Browntown community near Kingsland. Laws samples at five sites there each month as part of her job as the head of the St. Marys Riverkeeper. The small non-profit organization has been monitoring the creek for three years, since efforts began to clean up what was recently a very hazardous waterway for swimming and fishing. The group has been working with Camden County government, St. Marys River Management Committee and the University of Georgia to make it happen.
“The E-coli levels here were off the chart,” Laws said. The problem was leaking septic tanks along the creek, which is dotted with fishing camps and older homes. Escherichia coli, or E. coli, a species of fecal coliform, is considered a good indicator of the presence of pathogens.
“We saw immediate improvements when the septic tanks were pumped by Camden County Department of Health,” Laws said. “It’s definitely a success story.”
The creek was first recognized as having problems in 2015, when the University of Georgia conducted water sampling. In 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated a portion of the St. Marys River as “impaired”, qualifying it for federal grants. That year, Camden County received the first grant for $204,375, and another one for $212,000 in 2020.
“Camden County received grant funding to repair septic systems in the Horsepen Creek watershed and to date, over 20 systems have been replaced,” said Terry Ferrell, Camden County Coastal Environmental Health Manager. “Testing by the Riverkeeper has shown a decrease in fecal coliform bacteria following these replacements. This is a joint project with several government and community groups. The St. Marys Riverkeeper has been instrumental in its success by documenting water quality conditions and improvement in the area. The Riverkeeper’s ongoing support and assistance is greatly appreciated.”
During the first phase of the grant, the Riverkeeper organization was asked to help with outreach. The people living in the area had to be educated about the need for their septic systems to be inspected — and possibly pumped out or replaced — by the county. The Camden County commission held a cookout for the residents, and sent out mailers to get the word out, Laws said. It worked. The residents cooperated with the plan and had their septic systems tested, pumped out or replaced.
According to the grant’s Phase 2 summary report, “Over a three-year period, a septic tank contractor pumped out or inspected 32 systems, replacing 23 failing systems. The St. Marys Riverkeeper performed monthly water testing and the results show a significant reduction of fecal coliform bacteria present at the 5 testing sites.”
Don Granger, a Horsepen Creek resident who allowed the group to sample from his property, said he and his neighbors are very grateful that the waterway has been cleaned up. He was trying to sell his property , and it helped to be able to tell potential buyers the water is now safe.
“The Riverkeeper has helped solve a lot of issues, obviously, because of the water quality. It’s pretty good now. It was pretty bad,” he said.
In addition to dangerous bacterial levels, the Riverkeeper monitors Horsepen Creek and 45 other sites along the St. Marys River for surface water conditions such as dissolved oxygen, pH, water clarity, salinity and conductivity. The data can be found on Georgia’s Adopt-A-Stream website, as well as the group’s website at stmarysriverkeeper.org. The Riverkeeper has also established valuable baseline levels for many indicators that will be useful in monitoring the river’s long-term health.
Leaking septic systems are a problem throughout coastal Georgia and Florida, in some places causing blue-green algae blooms that can be devastating to the habitat and the local economy. The Riverkeeper organization is working to prevent that from happening to the St. Marys River. When the group’s water sampling shows increased levels of E-coli or other dangerous indicators, it immediately alerts local agencies to find the source of the pollutants and help find solutions, Laws said.
“You need a good septic system because the groundwater is so high,” she said. “Septic runoff is one of the main threats to our river and it’s the effect of population growth and septic systems that aren’t properly maintained.” The 130-mile St. Marys River forms much of the boundary between Georgia and Florida. Forty percent of the 3,000-mile watershed is wetlands that depend on the health of the river.
“Overall this river is very healthy, and our goal is to keep it that way,” Laws said.
The organization is closely monitoring several other sites that have shown high E-coli levels, including Spanish Creek in Charlton County, GA., and Escambia Slough in Fernandina Beach, FL. At both sites the group is working with local and state governments and schools to pinpoint the source of the contamination and make recommendations for remediation.
Laws recalls a day last winter when she knew the Horsepen Creek project was going to be successful. When sampling one of the roadside creeks, she noticed two little crayfish, living indicators of a healthy habitat. “In the past, that area was covered in algae and smelled, nothing was living in the water. But now, we have these wonderful macroinvertebrates showing up. This is an example of what can be done.”
Story and photos by Kendra Shafer