John Ryan saw it coming.
As West Jackson became more and more developed, the town of Jackson’s water utility manager knew it was only a matter of time before water became an issue. A few years back, he said, the big subdivisions like Three Creek Ranch, Indian Trails and parts of Cottonwood weren’t fully built out. But now, he said, they are, and they’re fairly large water consumers. So Ryan wasn’t particularly surprised when, in July, West Jackson water users gulped down a record-setting amount of water, typically at night when the irrigation-inclined spritz their lawns.
Ryan said the town typically goes from pumping 2 million daily gallons of drinking water in slow seasons to 7 million gallons in the summer. The town’s water system could pump anywhere from 9 to 10 million gallons a day if it “had to.”
But in July, the town was pumping a little over 7 million gallons a day, Ryan said. That’s the most he had ever seen.
“We’re not in dire straits,” Ryan said. “But we have the possibility of being that way.”
That’s why, throughout August, the town of Jackson sent notices to landlords, homeowners, businesses and other public water consumers asking them to cut back. Among other things, the town asked people to reduce watering times, abstain from watering when it rains, water every other day or third day, and opt out of watering between midnight and 4 a.m., when the town experienced the bulk of the July demand.
“People here often consider water to be such an abundant resource that it can be hard to get them to consider it a finite resource, which it really is,” said Carlin Girard, executive director of the Teton Conservation District, a leader in the Clean Water Coalition’s Trout Friendly Lawns initiative.
That program aims to get people to cut back on water use and fertilization, among other things, to reduce nutrient pollution in Jackson’s waterways.
Girard encouraged people to mow grass less, because the longer it is, the more resilient it is to hot, dry weather. That’s in part because long grass shields soil from baking in the hot sun.
While the issue sprung up in West Jackson, the town sent notices to all of its customers, hoping to encourage water savings across the board. Both Ryan and Floren Poliseo, the town’s director of public works, said it was difficult to pin the problem on any one consumer.
But both officials said the town had reached out personally to some of the biggest water users — the Blair Place Apartments, Three Creek Ranch and Teton County School District No. 1, among them — to try to change their practices. Some high-volume commercial users also discovered leaks.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 65.4% of Teton County is in severe drought. It also reported that July was the 16th driest July on record in Jackson Hole. Those conditions, according to the drought monitor, can lower water pressure and cause well levels to decline. That trend was borne out this July in Jackson, where Poliseo said significant water use in some areas caused pressure drops in other areas.
One man, who reached out to the town online, said that he usually has a water pressure of around 85 pounds per square inch, or PSI, that sometimes drops to 70 PSI in the summer. On the day he reached out, it was around 45 PSI, Poliseo said.
Ryan said water levels in the town’s wells have also declined in the last five to 10 years, falling roughly a foot when they’re not being pumped.
But water in the town’s 120-foot wells is roughly 30 feet deep, so Ryan said the problem now is rapid draw down, rather than aquifer depletion.
“Thankfully we’re at the top of the water chain,” Ryan said. “The aquifer’s dropped a little but, as of right now, it’s not anything to panic about.”
But if the drought continues, he said, it could become a more serious problem.
With new development in West Jackson — and more on the way, with the neighborhood plan for northern South Park recently approved — Ryan said part of the problem is infrastructure. If he had a tank to store water above ground in the water zone that covers West Jackson, he said, the production and pressure issues that happened this summer wouldn’t be an issue.
But between rights of ways, permits easements, and finding a place to put it that’s the right elevation — “People don’t want water towers around there,” Ryan said, “they want them to be invisible” — setting up a new tank is difficult.
In the meantime, Ryan said, the town is working on digging a new well in the Rangeview neighborhood. But new developments in northern South Park will need to wait until the town gets access to more water for the area, Ryan said.
“It will not get approved until we have another water source,” he said.
New infrastructure will help, Ryan said, but it won’t solve the problem
“We got some ridiculous amounts all over town,” Ryan said of water meters. “There are people that conserve and there are people that don’t care.”
For now the town is trying to avoid water restrictions — limitations that might come if one of the town’s bigger wells goes down.