Clean Drinking Water is a Right We Can’t Afford to Lose

We take our clean drinking water for granted. We shouldn’t.

If the scenario playing out in the Hoback Junction area becomes the reality in other parts of Teton County, our drinking water, and our health, could be in jeopardy—and we the taxpayers would be responsible for the bill.

The Hoback Junction area is a “nitrate hot spot.” Over the past fifteen years, drinking water quality impairments, and failing septic systems, have led to nitrate contamination levels at, near or above 10 milligrams per liter at the Hoback Market, J-W Subdivision, Hoback RV Park and Hoback River Resort.

That’s the level of nitrate contamination that triggers intervention by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA steps in because nitrate contamination can lead to gastrointestinal illness, cholera, hepatitis A, typhoid, Blue Baby Syndrome, increased heart rate, nausea, headaches, and abdominal cramps. Some studies also suggest an increased risk of cancer. 

When the EPA gets involved, they either shut down a public water system, or require treatment to reduce the nitrate levels to safe levels.

The Wyoming Water Development Commission did the math on what it would take to replace public water systems in the Hoback area.

Estimates indicated that the cost in 2005 would have been more than $9M.

By 2010, the report estimated that the cost to replace Hoback’s public water system would have gone up nearly 70%, to more than $13M.

Today, the problem is still not fixed. 

Hoback is hoping to form a water district, get a state loan and build a new water supply system. It will cost millions of dollars. Not all of it will be free money. 

Consumers of that water—that is, the residents of Hoback—will pay for it with higher water rates.

But special districts are not the way to address the problem. They’re why we have the problem in the first place: no one’s in charge. Even if Hoback were successful in setting up a water district, it would simply shift the onus of addressing the water contamination problems to the landowners.

Our nitrate contamination problem exists because of lax regulations at both the County and the State level. Over the past forty years, we’ve allowed thousands of septic systems to be placed throughout the county in areas that were unsuitable for their use. Only now are we beginning to awaken to the environmental and public health implications created by this lack of oversight. 

In order for us to address this community-wide problem, we’re going to need our Board of County Commissioners to develop a comprehensive wastewater management plan that guarantees clean drinking water for all Teton County residents. We also need to establish a Conservation Department to help ensure that future developments take into consideration the sort of impacts created by a lack of oversight of our septic systems.

And we need to act now, while we still can and before the costs of intervention become exorbitant.

There are five other “nitrate hot spots” in the County: Snake River Park KOA; Camp Creek Inn; Snake River Mobile Home Park; and Pub Place, above Rafter J.

Over the past five years, all of them have had peak nitrate contamination levels between 4 and 8 mg/L. In each location, the level of contamination has consistently risen over the same time period.

Are we ready for the bill if the EPA intervenes in these hot spots too?

One of the reasons I demanded a neighborhood plan before any upzone of Northern South Park was granted was that the applicant had provided no clear indication of how they would handle their wastewater. The Town of Jackson has requested, but still not received, information from the land owners that would allow the Town to determine whether the development can connect to the town’s wastewater treatment facility. 

How we manage the wastewater in Northern South Park is a critical issue that needs to be resolved before any zoning changes are made. A neighborhood plan must clearly indicate how wastewater will be handled without contaminating our aquifer.

Those advocating for the upzone before wastewater management was in place were, in essence, “kicking the can down the road,” imperiling our community’s public and ecological health while passing along the bill for EPA intervention to Teton County residents at a later date. 

All of us owe a debt of gratitude to Protect Our Waters JH, which donated $250,000 for a comprehensive wastewater management plan, and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which proposed that the Teton County Board of Health require an early warning procedure when drinking water first becomes contaminated. 

The Jackson Hole News and Guide also deserves credit for its reportage on the issue, including a Sept. 23 editorial that highlighted our water concerns.

Let’s keep up the pressure on our elected officials and candidates for office to protect our drinking water. In addition to calling for the establishment of a Conservation Department, supporting the comprehensive wastewater management plan, and demanding an early warning procedure, all of us in Teton County need to advocate for:

  • Removing/decommissioning septic systems in sensitive/unsuitable areas and replacing them with or connecting them to a centralized sewer system. 
  • Developing source water assessments and source water protection plans for every one of the 114 public water systems serving Teton County. 
  • Prohibiting new septic systems in nitrate hot spots. 
  • Revising Teton County’s small wastewater facility regulations to include the most protective measures recommended by U.S. EPA.

Our mantra can and should be: no new Hobacks. We can’t afford it.

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@ 2020 Christian Beckwith for Teton County Commissioner.