In Teton County’s struggle against water pollution, perhaps the most perplexing foe is the septic system.
The valley is rife with that common apparatus, though studies have charged it with contributing to the corruption of local water sources. Experts judge the vast majority of soil in Jackson Hole unsuitable for septic systems, yet a third of all parcels in the county dispose of wastewater via the humble device.
The problem at its most basic is that the county lacks a unified approach to this slow-moving and decidedly unglamorous problem.
“That, to me, has been part of the missing link,” said Carlin Girard, a water resource specialist with the Teton Conservation District.
He and other local scientists and conservationists are pushing for a more coordinated fix. They differ on the details, leading to tension between those who call for urgent action and those who accept the plodding pace of far-reaching community plans.
But all agree that without a comprehensive approach to handling the stuff we flush down our toilets and sinks, the health of the environment, wildlife and people is at risk. For the most part the effects aren’t dire yet, but some fear Hoback Junction, with its contaminated wells, could be a harbinger of similar problems in other areas.
It’s growing clearer every year that even in paradise the water isn’t perfect. One of the major offenders is nutrient pollution, an excess of nitrogen and phosphorous that can cause algal blooms, marring water quality. Nutrient pollution has three prime culprits: livestock waste, lawn fertilizer and wastewater, largely from septic systems. It’s difficult to know how much each contributes to the problem.
“When it comes to battling nutrients there’s no smoking gun,” said Dan Leemon, a hydrologist and executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Fish Creek. “We can’t say if we clean up all the septic systems we’re golden.”
But, he hastened to add, it’s safe to assume septic systems deserve a sizeable share of the blame.
The poop predicament
A 2016 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found septic systems responsible for about 15 percent of nutrients from human activity in the Fish Creek watershed. That isn’t a problem per se. The trouble arises, as it has in Teton County, when a septic system isn’t well placed.
In subpar conditions nutrients can easily seep into groundwater and surrounding streams, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service — which assesses soil around the country — considers nearly all of Jackson Hole’s sandy, gravelly soil unfit for septic systems. Add to that a booming population, with its attendant influx of wastewater, and you have a recipe for pollution.
According to a 2005 report on rural communities in the inland Northwest, an increase in wastewater output without a centralized sewer system can “degrade the quality of nearby waters,” particularly if septic systems are placed too close together. The land can’t filter pollutants well enough before they reach the groundwater, which then mingles with surface water like lakes, ponds, creeks and rivers.
The problem stems from the rural nature of those communities. The consolidated town of Jackson has long channeled all its wastewater to a single treatment facility, but for Teton County officials it’s hard to justify installing a sewer line across long tracts of land for relatively few homes.
“If money wasn’t a problem, connect everybody,” town Wastewater Manager Johnny Ziem said. “But when you’re looking down 20 miles of county road and there’s 12 people who live on the road, you’re thinking, “Who’s going to pay for it?’”
The county doesn’t handle wastewater in a centralized way. Rather, sewage disposal outside Jackson town limits has evolved into a complex patchwork of small sewer districts, some that pump their sewage to the town’s plant and others that have their own plants.
Teton County also doesn’t require septic system owners to have them inspected, maintained or repaired. And though they are low-maintenance, as county Engineering Technician Ted Van Holland put it, they are not “no-maintenance.” Without proper care septic systems can fail and release untreated sewage into the ground.
Nevertheless, many people don’t see to the necessary upkeep. Some have no idea where their wastewater goes after it swirls down the drain or toilet bowl, perhaps because among them are second-home owners whose primary residence is hooked up to a sewer.
“If they don’t know they have a septic system,” Ziem said, “they’re not cleaning it. I can tell you that.”
Many parcels are within close range of existing sewer districts or in high-density areas where it would likely make sense to install sewer lines. But Leemon said there isn’t a clear-cut way for people to communicate with others interested in connecting to sewer.
“There’s really no defined mechanism to get people hooked up to sewer lines,” he said. “That is just such a huge part of dealing with this problem.”
State of the pollution battle
Concern for the health of local water sources has been on the rise for at least two decades, as a growing body of evidence points to the harmful effects of human activity. But despite an abundance of water quality research since the early 2000s, many complain that concrete progress has been scant.
“We believe we have all the data we need in the world to say septic systems are a problem,” said John Culbertson, president of Friends of Fish Creek. “We don’t want to waste any more time doing any more studies.”
To be sure, Friends of Fish Creek and other groups, like the Teton Conservation District, have made moves toward a more pristine Jackson Hole.
The two have partnered to encourage septic system maintenance, helping about 400 owners pay to pump the sludge out of their tanks. They also recently created a first-ever parcel-by-parcel map of sewer lines and septic systems throughout Teton County to inform planning decisions.
The county, for its part, has not ignored the problem. Elected officials have declared wastewater management a top priority, and Van Holland said the county’s land development regulations do require most new subdivisions to use a centralized sewer system.
“I don’t think they’re just burying their heads in the sand,” Girard said.
That is where the two schools of thought diverge. Culbertson and others would like to thrust wastewater management to the forefront of public discussion, arguing that its urgency demands immediate action.
Others, like Girard, say local officials have a wide range of problems to deal with, and argue that water quality shouldn’t be forced to the top at the expense of other important issues like housing and transportation.
“This isn’t a do-or-die, sky’s falling scenario,” Girard said. “I think we need to do it, and I think starting soon is the right time, but I also am very patient when it comes to town and county governments that have many, many priorities.”
Culbertson argues that that overlooks the point. He wants to curb the degradation of local streams long before it reaches the advanced stage that would constitute a “sky is falling scenario.”
“We are not in a crisis level yet,” he said, “but we don’t want to get anywhere near that tipping point.”
The case in point is Hoback Junction, where efforts to ensure safe drinking water by forming a water district and tying into Jackson’s municipal supply failed in 2007.
Now, more than a decade later, Hoback’s water carries hazardous levels of nitrates, which can cause birth defects when consumed by pregnant women and blue baby syndrome in infants. In November local health officials declared the situation “urgent.”
Girard said human health risks should trump long-term planning for the environment. But even so, he acknowledged that it’s less than ideal that officials are playing catch-up to restore Hoback’s tap water to a drinkable standard.
“That has typically been the way things have happened,” he said. “A lot of it’s reactionary, it’s not proactive.”
Paths to purity
Everyone shares the goal of treating wastewater, but ideas on the best approach are far from unanimous.
Culbertson leans toward establishing a single governing body to oversee wastewater and hooking up homes to sewer wherever it's realistic to do so. He also suggests potentially piping all sewage to the town's treatment plant, though that would likely be fraught with logistical and political hurdles.
Ziem, who is in charge of the town facility, said it’s probably wise to consolidate the 15 or so separate sewer districts sprinkled across the county, but he believes a single treatment plant is likely overkill.
The town already absorbs wastewater from much of the county and taking on the rest would entail major upgrades to the plant.
“I think there’s probably multiple ways we can solve this problem,” Ziem said, “and we need to look at all those possibilities.”
Wherever the pipes lead, Leemon suggested that people should not be allowed to refuse to hook up to sewer if they are within the boundaries of a sewer district, as is the case for some holdouts in Teton Village and other parts of the county.
“When you have a septic system in a sensitive area,” Leemon said, “I don’t know why that would be an option.”
But there are still plenty of septic systems, so others argue the county should revamp its lenient regulations on maintenance. Rather than just encouraging people to pump their tanks, said Paul Hansen, a retired professional conservationist and News&Guide columnist, the county should mandate inspections and cleaning.
“We don’t go voluntary with traffic laws, we don’t go voluntary with zoning, we don’t go voluntary with child abuse,” Hansen said. “Why should we go voluntary with the environment?”
Van Holland said he believes an outreach and education campaign could “provide substantial benefits ... and avoid a lot of the cost.”
He said the county is working to identify high-density areas that use septic systems to “understand what options are best suited to address the specific circumstances.”
For example, the county recently installed the Adams Canyon sewer system, which will allow that neighborhood south of Jackson to abandon its septic systems.
Details aside, everyone agrees officials need to be more intentional about wastewater treatment, as opposed to handling problems case by case. That could involve a wastewater master plan that analyzes where growth is likely to occur in the county and determines the best strategies to manage the additional sewage.
Culbertson has proposed hiring an independent consultant to point out the problems and opportunities for improvement in the community’s wastewater treatment. Others support the idea, but it’s not clear when, or if, it will happen.
In Culbertson’s opinion, the sooner the better.
“This is Jackson Hole,” he said. “We can’t have polluted streams running through Jackson Hole. This is what we stand for, right?”
Editor's note: This article has been revised to clarify that John Culbertson advocates hooking up as many homes to sewer as is practical, but not all homes.