Water quality advocates are asking public health officials to alert Jackson Hole residents and launch an investigation whenever a concerning water pollutant, nitrates, climbs above natural levels.
The goal of beefing up surveillance would be to “prevent future Hobacks,” the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Dan Heilig and Protect Our Water Jackson Hole’s Dan Leemon wrote in a Sept. 1 letter to the Teton District Board of Health and Teton County commissioners.
“We believe these simple, straightforward measures will help to prevent another Hoback from ever happening again in Teton County,” Heilig and Leemon argued in the missive. “We believe our community would agree this rule is necessary.
“The unfortunate — and enormously costly — situation impacting Hoback Junction,” they wrote, “could have been avoided by early intervention when it became apparent years ago that nitrate levels in public water systems were trending upwards.”
A proposed rule that Heilig and Leemon also submitted would first require all 114 public water systems in the county to register with the Teton County Public Health Department. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already requires monitoring of all public water systems, which either convey tap water to at least 15 service connections, or which serve an average of 25 or more people.
What the EPA doesn’t do is notify water consumers when nitrate readings exceed natural background levels of around 3 milligrams per liter, which “generally indicates contamination,” according to the agency. The federal threshold for nitrates is 10 milligrams per liter, and drinking water with concentrations greater than this is particularly dangerous for fetuses in pregnant women and infants, which are put at risk for birth defects and potentially lethal blue baby syndrome.
Heilig and Leemon make the case that notifying the public and intervening with an investigation once nitrate concentrations exceed 3 milligrams per liter would allow the owners and operators of public water systems to catch pollution issues that may be arising. Parts of Hoback Junction that are struggling with water quality watched nitrate concentrations slowly rise for decades.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality has launched an investigation into the cause, but many people engaged on the issue suspect the water woes down south are related to dense septic systems discharging into slowly recharging aquifers.
The proposed rule submitted by Heilig and Leemon calls for the county health department to publish notice of nitrate detections exceeding 3 milligrams per liter in the local newspaper within 24 hours. Owners of private wells within a 3-mile radius of the public water system would also be notified.
The investigation would be triggered if two monthly tests in a row surpass the 3-milligram threshold, or if it’s exceeded three times in a calendar year. The health department or other branches of the Teton County government would be tasked with identifying “obvious and known sources” of nitrate pollution like animal feeding areas, lawn and landscaping activities, and septic systems.
As proposed, the requested rule would also give the Teton County Health Officer the latitude to order remedial action. Last, Heilig and Leemon request that the county’s 114 public water systems each develop and implement a wellhead protection plan, source water assessment, and source water protection plan within one year.
Rising nitrate levels that can put public health at risk is a problem nationally. A study published in the September 2019 Journal of Environmental Research found that 6 million Americans depend on tap water with an average of 5 milligrams of nitrate per liter or greater.
The Teton District Board of Health has budgeted an agenda item about Heilig and Leemon’s letter and proposed rule at its Sept. 22 meeting. At this juncture, staff and county attorneys are trying to decipher what would need to happen to enact the measures sought by the water quality advocates.
“We’re still trying to determine jurisdiction,” Teton County Health Department Director Jodie Pond said. “Is it the commissioners that have jurisdiction or the Board of Health? We’re researching that now.”