Calls for a proactive “warning system” that would inform residents when nitrate levels in drinking water are charting toward dangerous territory had some traction with the Teton District Board of Health.
Then the idea fell flat.
“The very simple bottom line is that the Teton County Health Department has neither the staff nor the funding to support this,” David Peterson told fellow board members Tuesday. “My suspicion is this is not going to be an inexpensive endeavor. The working committee arrived at the consensus that it’s not the time right now, at least, to consider implementing these rules and regulations.”
Peterson was one of four health board members who were a part of a subcommittee tasked with investigating the feasibility of a draft rule proposed by two professional water quality advocates: the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Dan Heilig and Protect Our Water Jackson Hole’s Dan Leemon.
The rule, in essence, would have registered Jackson Hole’s 114 public water systems with the Teton County Health Department. When mandatory monitoring already required by the Environmental Protection Agency caught water samples with more than 3 milligrams per liter of nitrates — a level that generally indicates human contamination — the proposed system would have triggered public notices and investigation into the cause. Currently, the EPA’s nitrate limit is 10 milligrams per liter, a concentration that’s dangerous for fetuses in pregnant women and for infants. Increased monitoring is required by the EPA once levels reach 5 mg/l.
“I don’t understand why our proposed 3 mg/l as a trigger for investigation became a lightning rod,” Heilig said. “It’s confounding to try to understand what happened.”
The health board subcommittee discussed and vetted the proposed nitrate rules in meetings that were closed to the public, a frustration to Heilig.
Although discussion about the proposal’s merits was limited at the Tuesday meeting, there were lengthy presentations by EPA and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality staff, who spoke about what drinking water monitoring and regulations look like currently. That system in place, Peterson suggested, is adequate.
“Obviously, EPA and DEQ seem to have authority over drinking water and obviously have been on top of it for quite some period of time,” he said. “We’re worried about redundancy.”
When nitrates have surpassed 10 mg/l in Teton County drinking water in the past, the EPA has taken fast action. That’s the case at the J-W Subdivision, the Hoback Market and Hoback RV Park — which all have infrastructure in place to reduce nitrate levels. In other isolated pockets of the county, concentrations are slowly climbing but haven’t reached the federal threshold. Sometimes residents in those areas are unaware of the creeping concentrations of the pollutant in their drinking water.
Previously, the health board showed some interest in going beyond federal and state guidelines to guard against nitrates in drinking water. In September, the board unanimously approved an investigation into Heilig and Leemon’s idea.
A handful of residents spoke Tuesday in support of the proposed rule after they were informed it wasn’t going anywhere.
Lee Bauknight, a denizen of the Hoback area — where nitrate issues have been most acute — called in and asked the board to advance the idea. Wyoming, he said, is “behind the times” on drinking water protections, and is the only state in the country that doesn’t require groundwater assessments where public water systems are located.
Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance staffer Brooke Sausser also spoke and highlighted the plight of Hoback Junction residents who’ve recently been affected by water issues.
“What happened at Hoback RV Park was appalling, but it’s really only indicative of the larger issues at play,” Sausser said. “This rule, simply put, is designed to prevent future Hobacks.”