To trace how mankind has altered and polluted Jackson Hole’s water, let’s follow one of the valley’s most beloved sources: Cache Creek.

The unsullied stream that flows out of the Gros Ventre Wilderness is tamed and stolen by a tube almost immediately once it reaches Jackson, disappearing underground at Cache Creek Drive. The subterranean conveyance system splays off in different directions, but most of Cache Creek’s contents reunite with the open air in Karns Meadow. Here Cache enters another treasured waterway, Flat Creek, along a stretch of stream that’s been regarded as “impaired” by environmental regulators for over 15 years because of stormwater sediment that’s degraded its purity.

After Cache and Flat creek’s united waters slosh their way out of town through South Park they are joined by outflow from the town of Jackson’s wastewater plant. And in this area the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is considering slapping Flat Creek with a second impairment — one for hazardous levels of E. coli bacteria.

At the Snake River, downstream dilution diminishes the rate of deterioration. But on its way towards Palisades the Snake (having swallowed Flat and Cache creeks) course by dozens of septic systems that feed the underlying aquifer. Near where the dispersed remnants of Cache Creek are joined by the Hoback River, some residents are advised not to drink their tap water because of a scary pollutant that has persistently worsened.

That is just one sampling of the water quality woes that are a reality in Jackson Hole.

“I think it’s time to draw a line in the sand,” said Carlin Girard, the water resources specialist for the Teton Conservation District. “Can we as a community collectively agree that we don’t want stormwater runoff going into our streams and creeks to get any worse? Can we agree that we don’t want our surface and groundwater to receive a higher contaminant load than they do today?

“We can do a better job,” he said.

The image of Snake River headwaters as pristine — think crystal clear water, healthy native fish and the still-steady snowpack sustaining both — is not a fabrication. The abundance of wilderness-quality federal lands and high country and the relative dearth of people and industrial activity give Jackson Hole’s water quality a good head start over much of the rest of the United States and the world. Clean, free-flowing streams and rivers and flush aquifers are abundant and figure to remain so into the foreseeable future.

A snapshot of recent history, however, suggests there are plenty of exceptions.

Pollution problems tend to materialize in and around streams and rivers that flow along the valley floor, which are disproportionately private property full of people. When issues do arise, they’re noticeable.

“The thing about a headwater system is the water doesn’t have a lot of ability to buffer pollutants,” said Brian Remlinger, an environmental scientist who has worked on Jackson Hole water issues for 20 years. “When you add a little bit of nitrate or a little bit of sediment the water will react pretty strongly to those minor changes.” That purity-derived sensitivity, combined with the growing population’s ever-increasing imprint on the land, has created a scenario in which degradation has become inevitable, and more evident.

In some cases it’s taken crises to force recognition of a problem. Just outside of the Snake River watershed, at Brooks Lake, historical seasonal algae blooms that at their worst have triggered widespread fish kills didn’t draw the attention of state investigators until a few years ago. The cause was never identified definitively, but an antiquated Brooks Lake Lodge sewage lagoon system that discharged directly into its namesake lake was considered a major culprit. The owner of the lodge, Jackson businessman Max C. Chapman Jr., took the initiative to spend a half-million dollars to revamp the system, but not before environmental regulators stepped in and added Brooks Lake to Wyoming’s “impaired water” list for excess nutrients.

The aquifers under Grand Teton National Park hasn’t been immune to foul water. Four years back a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist announced he had found traces of an unregulated and poorly understood compound, benzotriazoles, that had likely seeped into the ground from the Jackson Hole Airport’s deicing fluid. The airport has since installed a system to capture the glycol-based deicer, but the detection of chemicals in the groundwater was enough to alarm well water-dependent neighbors just west of the runway.

Other corners of the community have scrambled more recently to protect their drinking water. Sixteen homeowners who hang their hats at Hoback Junction’s J-W Subdivision had to invest more than $100,000 this summer to scrub noncompliant levels of nitrates out of their tap water. Inaction wasn’t an option — high nitrates can have catastrophic consequences for infants and pregnant women, threatening fatal blue baby syndrome and birth defects. Hoback Junction residents and businesses that have struggled with water quality for decades weren’t exactly shocked. “The water sucks,” Hoback Market owner Larry Huhn told the News&Guide at the time. “My water comes from a 2.5-gallon-a-minute well, and then you got to treat it in a $200,000 room.”

Water degradation due to accumulation isn’t confined underground. The spring-fed waters of Fish Creek, which flow through Teton Village and Wilson, illustrate a case of conditions gradually worsening over time. Five years ago another USGS study affirmed what backyard biologists and fishermen had long suspected: that algae in the prized West Bank stream was blooming at unnatural rates because of nutrient pollution. Subsequent research pinpointed how it was getting into the 71-square-mile watershed. Atmospheric deposition, livestock manure, golf courses, septic systems and sewage treatment plans were all contributors, and the nonprofit organization Friends of Fish Creek formed to devise a collaborative, nonregulatory solution. With Fish Creek the maturation of the science helped to get everybody on the same page.

“Over the last 20 years folks have realized and the data has shown that we all have an impact,” Remlinger said. “And back then there were certain players in the game that didn’t really want to be involved and weren’t accepting of the fact that they had an impact. Now they’re asking how can we participate in this and how can we resolve this issue in reducing our pollutant load.”

Another new initiative, the Jackson Hole Clean Water Coalition, has formed to pick away at water quality issues. The Conservation District-, Friends of Fish Creek- and Trout Unlimited-backed effort is predicated on education and encouraging homeowners to abide by best practices, like trout-friendly lawn care. But some residents who like to weigh in on water issues think these types of campaigns fall short, and that better regulation is badly needed.

“In the state of Minnesota, there’s a 50-foot no-mowing buffer by all streams,” said Paul Hansen, a retired professional conservationist who’s lobbied for better stormwater systems. “We can do that in Teton County. Maybe it’s not 50 feet, but something. The cognitive dissonance between caring about the environment and ignoring Jackson Hole’s polluted waterways just has to dawn on people, at some point. There’s probably more talk now than there’s been, but so far there’s really no more action.”

Making that change, of course, will take time and money. If fixing long-known problems, like Flat Creek’s problem with sediments, is proving out of reach, it doesn’t bode well for dealing with longer-term environmental stressors that may some day worsen Jackson Hole’s water woes. “It’s global warming and climate change that’s not in the conversation,” Remlinger said. “It’s the bull in the room that no one is addressing. We may not be seeing it now in terms of water, but we will see it.”

The man whose professional task is to uphold water quality — Girard — said he’s patient, and knows that working on water issues is slow-going and incremental. But he believes there’s unlimited room for improvement. When it comes to issues like wastewater management in Jackson Hole, there has been little foresight.

“I feel very strongly that it has not been done in a sophisticated, well-planned, prioritized manner,” Girard said. Resolutions to turn that tide would be a start. “I would love to see the town and county agree to a plan that essentially says, ‘Let’s not increase our wastewater contamination a milligram-per-liter more than it is today,’” Girard said. “I would like to see a community commitment say, ‘We don’t want these problems to get any worse.’” 

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067, or @JHNGenviro.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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