Water quality hire fight

Three moose wade through the shallow waters of Fish Creek in 2017. The Teton County Board of County Commissioners and employees and board members of Protect Our Water Jackson Hole tangled over how to hire a new staff member and address water quality issues during a Tuesday meeting.

Despite a stream of public comment from water quality advocates urging the Teton County Board of County Commissioners to hire a water quality expert, a majority of the board is sticking to its guns.

Three of the five commissioners remain committed to hiring a project manager in the public works department, a decision reached earlier in budget discussions for the 2022 fiscal year, which starts July 1. If the decision sticks when commissioners approve the budget later in June, that employee would manage an ongoing water quality planning effort, likely balancing that work with other projects. They could manage the water quality initiative in conjunction with a consultant who has pertinent expertise.

But employees and board members of Protect Our Water Jackson Hole, a nonprofit collaborating with the county on the plan, urged commissioners to do things differently: hire a water quality expert at the outset.

Dan Leemon, the group’s executive director, said progress on the water quality plan has been “slow.” But he didn’t blame existing staff, saying the issue was “a reflection of the wide range of duties that staff is expected to accomplish.”

“While we support the hiring of a full-time project manager, we also firmly believe that there’s immediate need for a water quality director,” Leemon told commissioners. “The need for a staff person that prioritizes the development and implementation of a comprehensive water quality plan has never been more clear.”

He and seven Protect Our Water JH board members spoke in favor of an expert hire Monday, expressing various degrees of concern about the pace of addressing Teton County’s water quality issues.

Those include nitrates and chlorophyll in Fish Creek, nitrates reaching concerning levels in the Hoback area, and pollution of Fish and Flat Creek with E. coli. Levels of ammonia, a byproduct of urine, have also climbed to near what’s expected in untreated sewage at the town of Jackson’s wastewater treatment plant.

Commissioners Luther Propst and Mark Newcomb have both advocated for hiring a water quality expert. On Tuesday, they fell in line with Protect Our Water JH, worrying that going with a project manager rather than a water quality expert could fly in the face of the county commission’s priorities for the year. One of the board’s priorities is water quality.

Newcomb said he supported hiring a project manager in the public works department, but believed that person would be swamped from the get-go. He listed wildlife crossings, the Wilson downtown redesign and administration of the 2020 BUILD — or Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development — Transportation Discretionary Grant as possible obstacles to dedicating significant effort to water quality.

But Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker and Commissioners Greg Epstein and Mark Barron argued in favor of the project manager as an intermediate hire.

Hiring a project manager would not be an abdication of the board’s priorities, Macker said.

“I don’t think it is an accurate representation to conflate that single position with our board’s focus,” she said. “But rather our focus on addressing this has been through this comprehensive planning process, which we have talked about for months, and I am as eager as anyone else is to get it started.”

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7063 or barnold@jhnewsandguide.com.

Teton County Reporter

Previously the Scene editor, Billy Arnold made the switch to the county beat where he's interested in exploring Teton County as a model for the rest of the West. When he can, he still writes about art, music and whatever else suits his fancy.

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