During recent decades of explosive growth, Jackson Hole has neglected its water quality. Both tributaries that flow through the valley, Fish Creek and Flat Creek, are polluted. While there are some individual projects going in the right direction, overall we remain far behind other mountain towns.
The 2012 Teton County Comprehensive Plan calls to enhance and protect water quality, but has never articulated a comprehensive plan of action.
This level of neglect for our valley’s water quality is not the hallmark of a community that claims to pride itself on protecting the wonderful landscape and environment we have inherited. Having badly polluted our water does not send the right message to millions of people who visit here each year to enjoy our natural splendor. As the word gets out that Jackson Hole waters are polluted, how will that affect people’s enthusiasm for coming here?
Actions in the town and county, while helpful, have been piecemeal. For example, thanks to the Teton Raptor Center for replacing its septic system with a connection to the sanitary sewer system, to First Republic Bank and Shooting Star for showing that a high standard can be met in new buildings, and to the airport for its new stormwater filtration system. Also, for the first time the melting mountain of polluted snow at the fairgrounds was filtered on its way to Flat Creek.
Taxpayer subsidies have led to 400 private septic systems being cleaned, many for the first time or in a long time. However, a series of excellent studies, in 1992, 2005 and 2013, all showed that most of Jackson Hole is not geologically suitable for septic systems. The climate is too cold and groundwater is too close to the surface, so soil and plant roots cannot absorb the waste nutrients in the septic leach field. If we care about water quality, we should at least require that septic systems be cleaned, as recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, as we move to phase out their use altogether.
We are still missing out on cost-effective opportunities to reduce contaminated runoff pollution that are widely used elsewhere. On most private land and even some of our town parks we mow right down to the water’s edge. The Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation Department still applies heavy amounts of herbicide to many town parks each spring. Vegetative buffers filter pollutants, stabilize soils and slow storm water runoff. If we care about water quality, we need a regulation that requires these vegetative buffers along all streams while limiting fertilizer and herbicide use.
Water pollution costs us all. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, sometimes called nutrient pollution, can make us sick, kill pets, hurt fisheries and raise treatment costs for drinking water. It is clear that these pollutants have contaminated drinking water in several parts of the county, most critically in Hoback Junction.
Our sewage plant may operate in compliance with Wyoming’s minimal water quality standards, which have just been lowered for the dangerous E. coli bacteria in small streams, but is by far the largest source of pollution in the upper Snake River. Nutrient pollution is unregulated in Wyoming. We can dump as much as we want. This is not the case in most other states. The town and county can honestly tell us we are in compliance with Wyoming’s state regulations, but is that enough for a community that aspires to a higher standard of environmental and public health stewardship? Are we content being decades behind other Rocky Mountain towns and counties?
A comprehensive effort to address Jackson Hole water pollution does not exist. We remain a long way from a system of green infrastructure befitting a community that declares “green matters” and “ecosystem stewardship is common value.” Piecemeal and voluntary actions will not do it. Important issues like this need us all to participate in a solution.