Wyoming Pumping Program Helps Keep Waterways Pristine

Local government and a nonprofit organization subsidize septic maintenance to keep the West wild and the rivers clean.

Wyoming Pumping Program Helps Keep Waterways Pristine

Contact Carlin Girard of the Teton Conservation District at carlin@tetonconservation.org.

In Teton County, Wyoming, the air is still fresh, the mountains still tall and the streams still clear — and one job of the Teton County Conservation District and the Friends of Fish Creek is helping people maintain their septic systems to keep those streams clear. For a second year, the two organizations (one part of the government and the second a nonprofit) are funding a program that will pay 50 percent of the cost of a septic pumpout up to a maximum of $150. Pumper talked with Carlin Girard, water resources specialist with the conservation district, about the pumping program and about other issues in this part of Wyoming that includes some of the nation’s prime wilderness and tourist attractions, such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

Pumper: In 2017 you had 175 people in the pumping program, and how many people signed up for the program in 2018?

Girard: We have roughly 90 to 100 people enrolled this year. So a little less participation than last year, but there are constraints in these programs in terms of slots available from the septic system pumping companies.

Pumper: How did this program get started?

Girard: The impetus arose from a local acknowledgement that septic system maintenance is not something that is regularly talked about. Septic system maintenance is not something that is always done. And we felt that a cost-share incentive program would potentially assist in remedying those two issues by making it easier for neighbors to talk about and by incentivizing some of those folks to get it done.

Pumper: Do you have people who haven’t done anything to their systems for 30 or 40 years?

Girard: We’ve found a wide range of circumstances. We’ve had people who thanked us and said they hadn’t pumped their systems in over 50 years. Or maybe it’s only 10 years, but the cost-share puts a specialist on the site and provides an opportunity to spot potential issues. Another issue here is we have some mobile soils, and in some cases the outlet from the home becomes detached and the septic system is no longer receiving effluent.

Pumper: Could you explain “mobile soils?”

Girard: Jackson Hole is characterized by an incredibly flat, wide-open glacial plain. On all sides of that plain are very steep hillsides. There’s a wide range of soil types in the valley, but in some locations clay layers are very prone to sloughing and landslides when the ground is saturated and water lubricates the layers. A house may never show any signs of movement because it’s all one mass, but the septic system is not strongly attached. There are places in Teton County where it’s hard to keep septic systems attached, and you might never know that unless someone else sees that your septic tank has no water in it.

Pumper: What trends do you see in the water quality in your area?

Girard: Jackson Hole experiences exactly the same type of water-quality issues that many other places in the country have, based on urban-type and suburban development in the town of Jackson. We have agriculture here and residential homes with leachfields and sometimes-high densities. We also have an incredibly high standard for stream water quality. I often tell people that while we have water-quality problems, I also believe most places in the country wish they had streams like Flat Creek and Fish Creek running through their backyards and towns. While we have problems, they’re not at the level of major fish kills or problems that aren’t correctible.

Pumper: This also helps with tourism, which is the base of your economy, correct?

Girard: It’s a massive, massive industry here. There’s also an appeal for second homeowners or retirees who have the means to go where they want to be and want be in one of the best natural resources settings in the country. Part of our protection work is also ethical. Our river systems are directly attached to the broader ecology in a way that we’re protecting a native fish population that is almost unlike anywhere else in the country at this time.

Pumper: Given what you said about retirements, do you have a housing boom in Jackson?

Girard: Ninety-eight percent of the land in Teton County is publicly owned, whether in Grand Teton National Park or Bridger-Teton National Forest. So that 2 percent land area is a massive constraint on development. Our county is not completely built out by any means, but we are seeing higher-density development and zoning rules pushing density to certain areas intentionally. Our housing situation here is comparable to New York City and San Francisco in terms of home prices and values.

Pumper: Where does onsite wastewater rank in your list of concerns?

Girard: I believe it should be a primary focus in terms of water-quality protection. The reason being that we don’t have major industries here — point sources of contamination. While we have a cattle industry, we also have ranchers and landowners who are also very committed to stewardship and who have a lot of resources to help them be better stewards. We no longer have a landfill; our trash is shipped to Idaho. So wastewater — and this is my opinion — wastewater as a whole is one of the largest contaminant loads and is almost 100 percent treated and discharged within our county boundaries. That fact alone says to me that if you want to protect your drinking water quality, then look to one of your largest potential sources of contamination. 

Pumper: What do you mean wastewater as a whole?

Girard: We have groundwater injection facilities as tertiary treatment. We also have one of the largest lagoon systems in the state that the town of Jackson operates, and that discharges to the Snake River. If you take a septic system offline somewhere, that septic system may have provided better treatment than the Jackson wastewater lagoon system. That’s what I mean: We have to think about all parts of the issue.


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