How septic systems can leak into the water supply

Teton County is preparing the first update of the community’s septic system regulations in a decade, and water quality advocates are taking the opportunity to push for sweeping reform and more environmentally protective rules.

A 51-page set of draft regulations that Teton County Engineer Ted VanHolland drew up uses Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality regulations as a starting point.

“On the whole, we’re required by state statute and by DEQ rules that our systems can be no less stringent,” VanHolland told the News&Guide.

Many counties in the Equality State defer to the DEQ for policing and setting standards for small wastewater facilities like residential septic systems. Teton County, however, has a “delegation agreement” with the state that allows local government to impose its own rules. Amid a community discussion about improving water quality, the county is being pushed to turn the dial toward more protective regulations.

“If there’s a tightening of the standards in some ways, people can weigh in on what they think the burden to applicants may be,” VanHolland said.

Approximately a third of the homes in Teton County — several thousand structures — depend on septic systems. It’s the default method for disposing of and treating wastewater outside of where sewage is piped to the town of Jackson’s wastewater treatment plant or to one of two centralized systems on the Snake River’s west bank. Four dozen other larger-capacity systems designed to handle more than 2,000 gallons of sewage a day fall under the DEQ’s jurisdiction, not the county’s.

The draft regulations depart from the preceding set of county rules by updating the application form and fee structure and extending how long a construction permit is valid. They require leak testing and the creation of an operation and maintenance manual for each system that would live in the county databases and be passed from one homeowner to the next.

“There’s a lot of lack of knowledge that people even have a septic system, even when they do have one,” VanHolland said.

Requiring a septic system operation manual, he said, would be “a good step” toward educating homeowners.

Some residents who are watchdogging the county’s revision process think the updates proposed don’t go far enough. Wyoming Outdoor Council Senior Conservation Advocate Dan Heilig’s take is that the county regulations should recognize the Snake River Aquifer as an EPA-designated sole source aquifer. He said they should also more closely emulate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s national guidelines, rather than the DEQ’s, following the more rigorous set of rules.

“There are thousands of septic systems in the ground here in Teton County that are point-source dischargers of nitrates and E. coli into the groundwater,” Heilig said. “Given that, we need a regulation that is prospective and forward-looking and also addresses ongoing issues associated with those systems.”

High densities of septic systems in some reaches of southern Jackson Hole are thought to be implicated in nitrate pollution that’s triggered efforts to pipe safe drinking water to the Hoback Junction area.

Heilig said the county ought to mandate maintenance and inspections. Upkeep of septic systems and the leach field they feed into is typically required every three to five years, and eventually some components need to be replaced. Requiring such maintenance isn’t reinventing the wheel, he said.

But VanHolland called requiring maintenance and inspections in Jackson Hole a “bold move.”

“It would be hard administratively, and on county staff,” he said. “It would be a big expansion of what we currently do, though if that direction came from the board [of commissioners] we would find a way to work that in.”

Heilig was disappointed that the proposed revisions remove protection for “watercourse protection districts,” which today set 150-foot setbacks for the Snake, Gros Ventre, Hoback and Buffalo Fork rivers and a 50-foot setback from other surface waters.

Having a county wastewater plan in place beforehand — a plan that’s currently lacking — could help optimize the septic system regulations, said Protect Our Waters Jackson Hole founder Dan Leemon. His organization has offered $250,000 to go toward such a plan, as long as it’s matched by the county.

“If you have a septic system in the ground in a more sensitive area of the aquifer,” Leemon said, “there should be stricter requirements.”

VanHolland said he’s all ears about requested revisions to the proposed regulations, which still need to get the OK from county commissioners and the Wyoming DEQ. In the meantime, he’s soliciting input on the draft plans, and requests that comments be sent in by April 21.

Email comments to A copy of the draft regulations is attached to the online version of this story at JHNews&

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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