GUEST OPINION: Five times the feces?

By on August 25, 2015

Speak up now to keep Wyoming waters clean

Evidence for the DEQ: Piper and Ryder Benjamin dipping their feet in a small Wyoming stream. But what, pray tell, are the GPS coordinates? (Photo: Craig Benjamin)

Evidence for the DEQ: Piper and Ryder Benjamin dipping their feet in a small Wyoming stream. But what, pray tell, are the GPS coordinates? (Photo: Craig Benjamin)

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Imagine you’re on a backpacking trip with your kids somewhere in the Wyoming backcountry. You come across a shallow mountain stream, the kids wade in and start splashing around, you refill your water bottles, wash up a bit and decide to take a break to cast for some cutties in a small pool.

It looks like a pristine mountain stream, crystal clear and miles from civilization, but looks can be deceiving. Think about how nearly 88,000 miles of streams across Wyoming might be allowed to have five times the feces in them if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approves a Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) decision to reclassify more than three-quarters of our state’s surface waters.

That’s right. In most Wyoming streams the DEQ wants to allow up to five times the current allowable concentration of E. coli – the coliform bacteria that comes from human, wildlife or livestock feces and can cause gastrointestinal illness or in severe cases, death.

Wait, what? Here’s the deal. Last August the DEQ issued a decision based on a Categorical Use Attainability Analysis for Recreation, which reclassifies nearly 88,000 miles of streams in Wyoming from primary contact recreation to secondary contact recreation under the Clean Water Act. According to the EPA, primary contact recreation includes uses like, “swimming, bathing … water play by children and similar water contact activities where a high degree of bodily contact with the water, immersion and ingestion are likely.” You know, the typical things we do in backcountry streams.

This means that water quality standards on these streams have been weakened to allow levels of E. Coli five times higher than the previous limit. DEQ made this move because they believe that small streams (with mean annual flows under 6 cubic feet per second or more than a half-mile from developed campgrounds and trailheads) are not capable of supporting primary contact recreation and therefore do not need to be protected.

DEQ moved forward with this sweeping and dangerous change with hardly any public outreach or site-specific analysis, assuming that most of Wyoming’s hard-to-access streams are not used by folks like you and me recreating in the backcountry – an assumption we all recognize doesn’t hold water.

The EPA wasn’t impressed with this approach and the almost complete lack of public engagement so they asked DEQ to hold a public hearing and “specifically reach out to recreational user groups” before they (EPA) would approve the categorical re-designation of streams.

In response, DEQ scheduled a public hearing in Casper on Sept. 16 and offered to accept public comments, via mail or fax (at first DEQ officials said they would only accept public comments provided in person or in writing during that hearing). Seriously, one public hearing and comments only through mail or fax (no emails) for an issue that affects our entire state and potentially puts thousands of people’s health at risk. Nineteen-eighty four called and they want their public outreach strategy back.

Making matters worse, through this reclassification process the DEQ has flipped logic on its head. Instead of following EPA guidelines, which suggest the DEQ should show that primary use is unattainable before reclassifying a stream, it is asking people like you and me to submit photos showing people recreating in a specific stream (along with detailed location information, like GPS coordinates) to prove that it’s a stream worth protecting. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I do when I am in the wilds of Wyoming is whip out my phone and start taking pictures, let alone log GPS coordinates. This shift in the burden of proof is both unreasonable and “bassackwards.”

So what can we do? Well, if you’re free Sept. 16 and up for a long drive, head to Casper and attend the public hearing for categorical use attainability analysis (don’t they make it sound like a fun meeting!) and make your voice heard for clean streams in Wyoming. This meeting will take place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Sept. 16, in the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission room in the Basko Building, 2211 King Boulevard in Casper.

Not down for a drive to and from Casper but want to have an impact on this issue? You can mail written comments to David Waterstreet, Watershed Section Manager, at 122 W. 25th St. Herschler Bldg. 4W Cheyenne, 82002. You can also send a fax (that’s still a thing people do?) to 307-777-5973.

Let the DEQ know they should withdraw their Aug. 20 “Categorical Re-designation of Streams from Primary Contact Recreation to Secondary Contact Recreation.” Tell them a better rule would be to incorporate feedback from a diversity of recreational users and be much more targeted and limited in terms of the streams that will be “downgraded.” Explain how you, your family, and your friends regularly recreate on and in low flow streams more than a mile from towns and more than a half-mile from developed campgrounds and trailheads and ask that they consider this when assessing the rule and adjust it accordingly. If you can, try to include photos of your family recreating in a low flow stream and as much information as you can about the stream’s location.

For an easy way to send a letter to the DEQ, visit JHAlliance.org/FiveTimes. If we speak up now, we can protect Wyoming’s streams and keep our families safe. PJH

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About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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