Jackson Hole has a water quality problem. For over 40 years we have known that this was coming, but we have been slow to act.
In 1978 the first Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan recognized the threats of unregulated septic systems and other development to water quality in Jackson Hole. The need to protect ground and surface water was called an “essential component” of the plan. Little was done, and the 1994 plan revisions dropped the clean water section altogether.
Today those threats have increased, and water quality is declining in parts of the valley. The Snake River Aquifer, the pure gravel river that flows beneath the valley, is our “sole source drinking water aquifer” in Environmental Protection Agency parlance. It is being contaminated, primarily by human sewage.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality has designated Fish Creek and Flat Creek, our two primary surface water tributaries, as impaired waterways due to fecal bacteria and contaminated runoff. The Teton County Health Department has posted signs warning people to avoid contact with the water.
In Hoback, drinking water is badly polluted, with nitrates exceeding the EPA’s maximum contaminant level of 10 milligrams per liter, a level that can cause harm to the young, the old and maybe everyone else. It will be very expensive to fix. Some other parts of the county have been identified as hot spots with rising levels of nitrate pollution.
The 3,600 or so unregulated septic systems, those Teton County homes not connected to modern sewage treatment, are a major source of pollution. Septic systems are always risky in places with shallow soil, a high water table and long cold winters like ours. Even under the best circumstances the EPA recommends that septic systems be cleaned and inspected every three to five years. Teton County does not require this measure that costs less than 50 cents a day per system.
Proposed “Revisions to Teton County Small Wastewater Facility Regulations” were due in 2018. They are now over two years late, raising questions about whether Teton County is capable of administering this program.
We lack the basic protective requirements outlined by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality 10 years ago and now common in other communities. The draft revisions do not include a requirement that existing septic systems be cleaned and inspected. They would allow continued land disposal of sewage, which is inappropriate in a special place like Jackson Hole.
Large new developments, such as those proposed in northern South Park, must be connected to modern sanitary sewage. Proposals for deep aquifer injection or surface application of wastewater for “irrigation” have the potential to exacerbate our problem.
The Jackson sewage treatment plant itself is the largest source of water pollution in the county. We are told that the sewage plant complies with Wyoming standards, but Wyoming does not include effluent standards for nutrient pollution. Are Teton County’s standards the same as Wyoming’s? Don’t we hew to a higher standard? New treatment wetlands there will help.
Teton County has 114 private water systems, the most in the state, all with separate boards and little coordination. Only three have source water protection plans, required by the Safe Drinking Water Act and in place in every state except Wyoming.
A comprehensive wastewater management plan is a critical first step to protecting water quality in Jackson Hole. The plan now agreed to by Protect Our Waters JH, which donated $250,000 for the work, and Teton County should be completed and implemented quickly. A new Wyoming Outdoor Council proposal to the Teton County Board of Health would require an early warning procedure when drinking water first becomes contaminated. That is a great idea and should also be implemented quickly.
Much of Jackson Hole has some of the best drinking water in America. We need to keep it that way. Preventive measures are always less costly than remediation. When groundwater and surface water are polluted it is not something that can easily be fixed.
Without clean water Jackson and Teton County cannot legitimately be considered a “green” community. We need to ensure that action is taken now and taken quickly.