Paul Hansen

Paul Hansen

The Healthiest Communities rankings from U.S. News & World Report are just out. They show how nearly 3,000 U.S. counties perform in 84 metrics across 10 health and health-related categories.

Teton County scored high overall but was deficient in one very important category: providing safe drinking water to its residents. The report found that 29% of our population is served by drinking water systems that violate Environmental Protection Agency standards.

County-level data were collected from well-recognized and validated sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the EPA.

These findings come as no surprise. Teton County has 114 private water systems, the most in the state, all with separate boards and little coordination and oversight. Only three have source water protection plans, which are required by the Safe Drinking Water Act and in place in every state except Wyoming. It is well past time for all Teton County drinking water systems to have a simple source water protection plan.

We have around 3,600 largely unregulated septic systems, a major source of water pollution. A modern and wealthy community like ours should have modern sewage treatment for all.

It makes no sense to be building multimillion-dollar homes with primitive septic systems that may not work in our shallow soils and cold climate. The EPA recommends that septic systems be cleaned and inspected every three to five years. Teton County does not require this inexpensive measure that costs less than 50 cents per day per system.

“Revisions to Teton County Small Wastewater Facility Regulations” were due at the end of 2018. They are now over two years late.

We lack the basic protective requirements outlined by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality 10 years ago and now common in other communities. There are too many examples of wastewater being improperly handled in Teton County.

We know that drinking water quality in Hoback Junction is badly impaired. It is also declining in parts of Hog Island, the Snake River trailer park, in parts of Kelly and at Pub Place and Old West Cabins in South Park. Declining means sewage leachate is finding its way into drinking water. Some of us are drinking diluted poo water.

In 2019 the nonprofit group Protect Our Waters JH offered $250,000 to pay for most of a Teton County Water Quality Plan. Two years later the county has still not hired a consultant to do the work. Protect our Waters JH helped get water quality into our Comprehensive Plan, so we hope to see this project finally move forward. This should include an independent evaluation of the Jackson wastewater plant.

Last fall the Wyoming Outdoor Council proposed a straightforward early warning procedure to alert us when drinking water first starts to become contaminated. The Teton County Board of Health turned it down. This is a great idea that the Board of Health should revisit as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.

The new housing development for northern South Park must be hooked up to the town of Jackson sewage plant. So far it has not been required to do so. The alternatives threaten drinking water quality throughout South Park.

Clean water is one of the most basic requirements of a healthy ecosystem and community. Protecting the water quality of Jackson and Teton County is essential to the ecosystem and scenic beauty that residents and visitors enjoy. The public has the right to clean, affordable drinking water.

Stewardship of surface water bodies of all sizes — streams, wetlands, riparian areas and groundwater — is vital to sustaining healthy populations of native species and for the health and safety of the human community. This includes the Snake River Sole Source Aquifer, the underground river that is our community’s drinking water source.

It is most important to minimize pollution from wastewater and stormwater that impairs water quality and threatens human health and overall ecosystem health.

Paul W. Hansen’s Common Ground column appears about twice per month. Columns are solely the opinion of their authors. Contact him via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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