SPET by SPET: Cache Creek Project will improve water quality in Jackson

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo.—The town of Jackson was founded at the confluence of two streams: Flat Creek and Cache Creek. Today, one of those creeks is no longer there; the other, threatened.

How can that be? A community that touts itself as sustainable and committed to protecting the environment is growing fast and if stormwater infrastructure isn’t beefed up, things are going to get worse before they get better.

So says Johnny Ziem, the town’s assistant public works director specializing in wastewater treatment. What keeps him up at night is something the rest of us never see or notice.

As that cool mountain rill known as Cache Creek bubbles out of the mouth of a canyon bearing its name and enters southeast Jackson town limits, it disappears. The decision was made some four decades ago to pipe and bury the creek as it meandered through town. It was probably for the best. It would not have survived intact at this point of the town’s population growth.

Where does stormwater runoff go and what materials are mixed in with this water? The town is hoping to better capture and treat stormwater via the Cache Creek Tube restoration project. Photo courtesy TOJ.

The Cache Creek “tube” now carries its load dutifully to Flat Creek, bringing with it sediment and hydrocarbons, and anything else washed off our town streets and surfaces. Six months of sanding our streets all winter takes its toll on our pristine waterways. Other toxic substances—like motor oil, gasoline, tire rubber—all get washed off our streets and into Cache Creek where the town’s stormwater treatment system funnels it off to Flat Creek.

It’s bad news, and part of the reason why Flat Creek was assessed as a “threatened” waterway by the Wyoming DEQ in 1996.

“In their opinion, nonpoint source pollution is mostly coming from stormwater entering Flat Creek—sediment loading like sand, grit, gravel and nonorganic materials washed off our roads,” Ziem says. “Basically, anything on the streets or parking lots that is spilled and not taken care of is ultimately going into Flat Creek. And if we are to follow our Comp Plan, well, the number one thing is ecosystem stewardship and protecting and enhancing our water quality.”

Carlin Girard, water resource specialist for Teton Conservation District, said he likes what he is seeing from the town so far as the town has begun to integrate stormwater treatment into its infrastructure at every opportunity.

“Stormwater treatment in US cities is commonplace. For the size we are in population we have a massive amount of vehicle traffic. We also have a huge reliance on traction sand through a long, long period of winter,” Girard says. “We also try to hold ourselves to a higher standard in Jackson Hole. Stormwater treatment is one of the tools at our disposal. In terms of what we’ve done so far, well, it has not been exceptional. But we are headed in the right direction.”

The town has been playing a bit of catch up in regards to stormwater treatment. Adopting BMP (best management practice) recently, the Karns Meadow project is a prime example of a new proactive approach now taken by the town concerning water pollution. Probably most residents have noticed the filtration system consisting of ponds and other amenities at the eastern edge of the meadow. This helps keep unwanted materials from entering Flat Creek, especially from the melting municipal snow mound at the fairgrounds.

So, why the $2M ask for SPET?

The reason is two-fold, and timing is crucial, Ziem says. Last year, Ziem and his crew confirmed something they’ve dreaded when they helped rebuild infrastructure for the Hidden Hollow housing development north of town: the Cache Creek tube is falling apart.

“When the tube was first put in 40 years ago, it was not in the right of way. It’s on private property underneath homes and businesses,” Ziem said, adding that a municipal utility should be in the town’s right of way to best manage that asset. “Also, we’ve replaced sections of the ‘tube’ piecemeal over decades. Nothing was done in a holistic manner in terms of using the same type of piping and so on.”

What the town wants to begin doing is get the Cache Creek tube rerouted slightly for some 3,350 linear feet beginning at Broadway and Willow. It’s about a half-mile section that covers what Ziem called a large 288-acre piece of urban stormwater runoff in East Jackson.

“The Cache Creek tube is an aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced. It was not designed or suited to carry this volume of stormflow,” Girard says. “The ability to correctly operate and maintain this system is also very challenging with the tube running underneath buildings.”

Pulling the creek flow into the town’s right of way will also restore a more traditional route of Cache Creek. So, though you can’t see it, the creek will flow the easy way it has for centuries.

Bigger bonus? The second part of the reason this project is on the SPET ballot is key. Ziem says now is the opportunity to implement a strategically-placed giant catch unit where Cache Creek discharges into Flat Creek. It will allow the town to capture both sediment and treat and remove hydrocarbons before they enter Flat Creek.

“It’s not the sexiest thing on the ballot,” Ziem admits. “But look, we pay for our sewer and water. You get a utility bill. Stormwater is every bit a utility and this is how we have to pay for it moving into the future.”

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