Hoback Junction

Hoback Junction residents north of the Hoback River have been urged to periodically test their drinking water due to high levels of nitrates.

The newest attempt to find a solution for water-quality problems in Hoback has begun.

At its meeting Monday, the Teton County Board of County Commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding with the Teton Conservation District “formalizing the roles, responsibilities, and obligations of each party,” according to a county staff report. Commissioners identified water quality, specifically in Hoback, as an area of focus for 2019-20 and asked the Conservation District to lead the charge in developing a new plan for the area, where public and private water sources have shown elevated levels of nitrates in drinking water for years.

Part of the memorandum allows the district to hire a facilitator for the process so that it can continue to be part of the steering committee working on the issue. The district’s board approved a contract with Legacy Works Group, and the commissioners’ “yes” vote makes the deal official.

“We typically work on conservation and natural resource issues,” Legacy Works Teton Project Manager Max Ludington said. “We have lots of experience and expertise in collaborative projects.”

The steering committee includes the Conservation District, the Teton County Health Department and Public Works. Ludington and Legacy Works will oversee the departments as they gather information from community members and technical experts. The committee will soon disseminate a survey to southern Teton County residents to establish what they want from the process.

Under Ludington’s direction, the committee will also convene a stakeholder group to put in the bulk of the work in the coming months. The survey will help figure out how many people are interested in being stakeholders and their levels of expertise.

“A survey sounds arbitrary,” Conservation District Water Resource Specialist Carlin Girard said, “but it will help us get a whole lot of input right away. We’re hoping for a high level of engagement.”

Girard said the committee didn’t have a set idea of who the stakeholders should be.

Having specialized knowledge is welcomed but not a requirement, though the willingness to wade through technical documents is. Living in the Hoback area is also not a prerequisite, though the committee does want to ensure that people who live in affected parts of the county have a chance to speak up.

The hope is that by offering everyone the chance to answer the survey and engage, community members won’t reach the end of the planning process — slated to take about a year — and feel left out, which happened during a similar attempt in 2007. Casting a wide net also expands the pool of potential participants.

“We have a real interest in getting input from people who might not be seen as formal stakeholders,” Girard said.

Once the stakeholder group is assembled, it will meet at least four times before offering recommendations on what can be done to address some of the issues, particularly the high nitrate levels. Ludington said his responsibility is to keep the process on track and to ensure that the stakeholder committee works efficiently.

“We also try to play a project manager role,” he said, “just making sure a lot of work is getting done between meetings, and not simply convening the meetings.”

The contract with Legacy Works Group is for about $26,000, Girard said, and the memorandum of understanding the county commissioners approved says the county and the Conservation District will split the costs.

Though the process is far from over, the steering committee hopes that through public meetings — of which there will be at least one — and asking for input with the survey, it can ensure that people are on board.

“We’re trying to learn from past experiences where members of the community felt they didn’t have adequate representation and their interests weren’t the focus,” Girard said. “We’re trying to get as much buy-in as possible.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-5902 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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