Photo: Protect Our Water Jackson Hole

A message from county commissioner candidate, Wes Gardner:

JACKSON, Wyo. — County Commissioner candidate Wes Gardner is committed to making the water flowing out of Teton County as clean as the water flowing in.

“Situated as we are at the headwaters of the Snake River, we have a special responsibility to be good stewards of this water — both for residents of our valley and the millions of people downstream,” said Gardner.

With water woes looming, Gardner wants to fast-track a solution for the contaminated aquifer in Hoback. Further, he is committed to getting ahead of clean water issues on the West Bank, setting the county up for a clean-water future.

“Given the shallow water tables and porous rock layers, many of the septic systems in the county just can’t function properly,” Gardner said. “Basically, in certain areas of the county, our sewage is seeping into the aquifer. It’s a simple fact that even the best-maintained septic systems are ineffective when facing the wrong geological reality.”

Photo: Mark Wilcox

That’s something Gardner, owner of Teton Toys and candidate for Teton County Commissioner, would like to change. Currently, families in Hoback Junction cannot safely drink their well water, as nitrate levels exceed 10 parts per million.

Nitrate levels in this range inhibit blood’s ability to absorb oxygen, causing something called “blue baby” syndrome in infants. This condition literally causes an infant’s skin to change color as blood vessels can’t reoxygenate fast enough due to high levels of nitrate concentration.

“It’s ridiculous to me that living where we live, anybody would have to worry about whether they can safely drink their water,” lamented Gardner. “Water is a top priority for this community. It’s one of those things that you take for granted until it is going to make you sick, at which point we start paying pretty close attention.”

While nitrate levels in Hoback’s water are not as high as most wells where blue baby syndrome has occurred, they are unlikely to decrease as long as we rely on septic tanks.

“I’ll do anything to keep my baby from turning blue,” said Gardner, who became a father earlier this year. “Clean water must be a top priority in the County. Unfortunately, in Hoback we’re in a position where we have to be reactive instead of proactive.”

Photo: Mark Wilcox

In a recent letter to the Teton District Board of Health and Board of County Commissioners, Senior Conservation Advocate Dan Heilig of the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Dan Leemon, the executive director of Protect Our Water Jackson Hole, blamed much of the problem on septic tanks, where nitrates can leach into the shallow water table and rob water of oxygen.

“The unfortunate — and enormously costly — situation impacting Hoback Junction could have been avoided by early intervention when it became apparent years ago that nitrate levels in public water systems were trending upwards,” the pair said in a letter recommending a county-wide rule of proactive changes.

Specifically, they called for an investigation of nitrate contaminants in an area when they spike to about 3 mg/L, well under the threshold 10 mg/L required for EPA intervention.

“But regrettably, no action was taken and nitrate contamination now exceeds EPA’s maximum contaminant limit of 10 mg/L and has rendered groundwater in the Hoback area unfit to drink without expensive filtration,” added Heilig and Leemon.

If elected County Commissioner, Gardner has a strategy for a quick reaction for Hoback while working toward a more proactive stance in the rest of the county.

According to Gardner, “if we hope to reduce the nitrate contamination in the Hoback aquifer, we must shift how we deal with sewage in areas where geology does not allow septic tanks to be effective. As I see it, we can either pump the sewage to our Town facility or explore the construction of a small-scale, high-tech treatment plant to service Hoback.”

Either solution would require the residents of Hoback to agree to form a water district, a step which they have been loath to take for years.

Photo: Mark Wilcox

“Frankly, I don’t understand the resistance to forming a Hoback Water District” Gardner said. “If I didn’t have access to clean water, you better believe that I would do whatever it took to provide safe drinking water for my family.”

“Forming a water district in order to gain access to state funding seems like a small ask when considering the consequences of not doing so. If elected, I would also consider utilizing the County’s General Fund to clean up Hoback’s water.”

Gardner fears that similar issues exist along the West Bank, where aging treatment plants at Teton Village and the Aspens are nearing the end of their lifespan, and the likelihood of catastrophic failure is rising.

According to Gardner, “one mistake in either of those treatment facilities, and within hours, we risk raw sewage flowing directly into the aquifer. For the next round of SPET funding (about 7 years away), I will support the deployment of a small-scale, high-tech water treatment facility on the West Bank. This facility will treat sewage pumped from Wilson to Teton Village, and will deposit cleaned water into the Snake River instead of directly into the aquifer.”

“We need multiple places to treat sewage,” Gardner said, including the town of Jackson’s treatment facility which has the capacity to treat 5 million gallons of sewage/day and is currently operating under half capacity at peak loads. “Let’s get as much of the county off septic tanks as possible. The Town has done a wonderful job leading the way on clean water, and it’s time for the County to play a role as well.”

As a business owner, Gardner is looking at creative ways to bring in the necessary funding that won’t damage the local economy. You can also read more about how he plans to smooth traffic flow here or about his plans for affordable housing here.

If water quality is important to you, please join Wes this Tuesday, September 29 at 6 p.m. for a conversation about cleaning up our water in Teton County, and vote for Wes Gardner on or before November 3.