Tubers, anglers and other folks recreating in two of Jackson Hole’s most central and revered streams are being warned of a health hazard inherent in their outdoor pursuit.
Environmental regulators have known for several years that portions of Fish and Flat creeks have, at times, carried water containing more E. coli than is considered safe for swimming and other in-water activities. The noncompliant concentrations of the intestinal bacteria were the cause for “impaired” listings by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality early this year, but that worrisome classification seems to be lost on the hordes of people enjoying the streams’ cool waters.
Brad Nielson, who chairs the board of Protect Our Water Jackson Hole, noticed that disconnect as he observed people setting off for tube floats in Fish Creek near his Snake River West Bank home this summer.
“I was concerned that we were not letting the public know about a health risk which ... is deemed to exist, by virtue of regulations and scientific data,” Nielson told the Teton District Board of Health last week.
Meeting July 28, the health board discussed the concern and took action. Unanimously and with Teton County Health Officer Travis Riddell’s blessing, they elected to place signs on the stretches of the streams where DEQ found high levels of E. coli in 2017.
“People should be able to know that they’re not in a pristine, clear-water-looking place,” Public Health Board member Joe Burke said, “and there are some potential consequences.”
Teton County Deputy Attorney Keith Gingery supported the idea of signing public access points near where water tests exceeded state standards.
“You clearly have science to back you up in the South Park Feedground,” Gingery told health officials. “Fish Creek, definitely you have the numbers to put up signs. We’ll try to get those up as fast as we can.”
When ingested, E. coli can cause bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting. The DEQ tracks E. coli as a proxy, as it tends to correlate with harder-to-detect pathogens in waterways.
On Fish Creek, where issues with E. coli were widespread, warning signs will go up in the next week at Hunt Bridge and on the Bridger-Teton National Forest property just upstream.
DEQ’s threshold for E. coli in large waterways is 126 “coliform units” of bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. Fish Creek’s 2017 noncompliant readings ranged from 135 to 340 units, and they were detected at multiple sampling points from May into August.
In Flat Creek, warning signs will go up in the South Park area near the bridge leading to the elk feedground area and where the stream joins the Snake River at the Von Gontard Landing. When the DEQ drew samples three years ago, Flat Creek through town was found in a safer condition, with no tests registering more than 37 coliform units.
A University of Wyoming graduate student is commencing research next year that will look at the fingerprint of E. coli in Fish and Flat creeks to help environmental and public health officials better understand where it’s coming from.