JACKSON, Wyo. — In Teton County, our biggest environmental issue is also a public health issue.
Increasingly, we’re drinking our own sewage.
Our water comes from a single source: the Snake River Aquifer.
Due to its importance to our community, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the Snake River a “Sole Source Aquifer” under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
In many areas of the county, this aquifer is less than five feet below the surface, making it especially vulnerable to pollution.
Yet because of lax regulations at both the County and the State levels, thousands of the approximately 3,600 residential and commercial septic systems throughout the county have been placed in these highly sensitive areas.
This is threatening public water systems and private water wells with minimally treated human wastewater.
Indeed, in some neighborhoods, decades-old and poorly maintained septic systems are discharging sewage into groundwater just a few dozen feet away from shallow water wells.
Nitrate contamination, which happens when septic waste is inadequately filtered out of our sewage, leaches into the groundwater — which, because we are a sole source aquifer, is our drinking water, too.
In certain places in our Valley, it’s as if our drinking straws were stuck in our own toilets.
By now, you’re probably aware that both Flat Creek and Fish Creek are listed as “impaired” by environmental regulators due to fecal bacteria pollution.
The same E. coli problem affecting these rivers is affecting our drinking water, too.
And while you can’t taste the contamination, you can see the results.
When was the last time you floated down the Snake or Flat Creek and wondered if all that algae was natural?
It’s not. Those algal blooms are the result of an abundance of nutrients that shouldn’t be there.
Explosive algal blooms are not the only byproducts of nitrate contamination. So are gastrointestinal illness, cholera, hepatitis A and typhoid. Some studies also suggest an increased risk of cancer.
And if you’re the proud parent of a newborn, watch out: drinking water contaminated by nitrates could leave your child susceptible to Blue Baby Syndrome, a condition in which a baby’s skin turns blue due to a decreased amount of hemoglobin in the baby’s blood.
Scared yet? You should be.
But there’s hope. Thanks to the dedication of groups like Protect Our Water Jackson Hole (POWJH) and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, our water problems have finally made it onto the radar screens of our elected officials.
On May 18, the Teton County Board of County Commissioners requested that POWJH work with Teton Conservation District and Teton County Engineering Services to develop a community plan that addresses the shortcomings of our sewer and septic systems.
To make that happen, POWJH ponied up $250,000 to help fund 50% of the costs.
It’s inspiring that a small group of concerned citizens got our elected officials to take notice of such a fundamental threat to our drinking water. But they need our help.
As a candidate for Teton County Commission, Christian Beckwith is stepping up. If elected, he will make clean water a centerpiece of his responsibilities.
But regardless of who you vote for in November, we need to make sure wastewater management remains a priority until we have a county-wide plan that gives planners, builders and developers alike the guidance they need to address our water issues now, and to keep our water clean down the road.
Clean water is a right, not a privilege. Let’s build the political will to keep our water drinkable, for this and future generations.
Demand that all candidates for elected office make clean water a priority of their campaigns.
If you agree, please vote for Christian Beckwith for Teton County Commission on August 18. Learn more about Beckwith’s candidacy and his positions at www.christianbeckwith.com.