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Guest Opinions

Department of Environmental Quality Deserves Our Support

Written by Bobbie Frank

By Bobbie Frank, Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director

I don’t know about you, but if I am out enjoying all our state has to offer in terms of recreation, including enjoying our waters, and if I want to go for a swim, I pick a waterbody in Wyoming, that, well…has water. Actually I don’t, because, as those close to me know, I am an aqua-phobic. But if I weren’t, I would want to take a swim where there is water!

I think we can all agree it would be nice if all of Wyoming’s drainages, draws and intermittent and ephemeral streams had water – and water in enough quantities to swim and kayak. These are the uses that are protected for in Wyoming designation of a water as a “primary” contact recreation water. If it can’t support these uses, then the water is protected as a secondary contact water.

What’s the distinction? Well, the water quality criteria utilized to determine if there is a risk to human health is a “risk management” standard. If the water is a primary contact recreation water then the E. coli standard is 126 colony forming units per 100 milliliters, and if it’s secondary, the standard is 630 colonies. Why the difference? Because the risk of immersion and ingesting quantities of water increases when the activity involves immersion in the water.  In a lot of Wyoming’s waters, there is such minimal to low flow that the risk of ingesting just does not exist, unless you are drinking directly from the creek, which most folks know is ill advised. This standard we are discussing, E. coli, does not protect waters as “drinking water” sources.

Recently the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has been under fire in the press for their Categorical Use Attainability Analysis (UAA) for recreation uses on Wyoming’s waters – unfairly so.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has historically required that waters be protected for “fishable/swimmable” uses unless it is demonstrated that such uses cannot be supported or attained. The process for demonstrating what uses can or cannot be attained is called a UAA. DEQ has long recognized, as most reasonable folks do, that not all “waters” in Wyoming have water and are capable of supporting primary contact recreation activities that involve full body contact and immersion. In 2007, EPA disapproved DEQ’s attempt to remedy the fact that all waters in Wyoming have water quality criteria applied as though they are all swimming holes. They began working on a very innovative, defensible and streamlined approach to determine which waters in Wyoming support primary contact recreation uses and those that support secondary uses, such as wading, fishing, etc.

In 2010, the Conservation Districts and DEQ discussed DEQ’s proposal to use technology and Geographical Information Systems (GIS), combined with a set of criteria, including flow, distance to public recreation areas, schools, campgrounds etc., to determine which waters should be designated primary and which are secondary. This was combined with a very robust field verification process where DEQ personnel collected data on approximately 150 sites and the local conservation districts collected field data on 720 randomly selected sites to compare to the model results.  We had conservation districts out overnight in the backcountry, in urban areas and everywhere in between to take data.

Most folks agree technology is a great tool but may not always reflect the on-the-ground conditions and realities, hence, the level of time and resources that went into collecting field verification data.  The results, with some tweaking, and a few changes based on EPA input including adding criteria such as flow, the model largely matched what was reality on the ground. DEQ also used an extra protective approach, designating waters, despite flow levels, located near a school, park, campground, major trails, etc., as primary contact. The action ensures that waters likely to see a higher use due to vicinity of a recreational area would receive the higher level of protection. 

After all of this work, DEQ went back out with a notice and invited anyone who had additional information to submit that for consideration last August.  Based on that feedback, DEQ finalized the Categorical UAA, packaged it up and sent it to EPA approval in December 2014. 

EPA did not approve the submission, no doubt as a result of some letters they were receiving from some groups in Wyoming indicating they were left out of the process. EPA denied approval, despite the fact that they felt the approach was technically sound, based on a determination that DEQ was required to hold a “formal” public hearing with a transcriber.  Although DEQ did not concur with this requirement, they have chosen to go forward with a hearing on Sept. 16 from 5-8 p.m. in Casper.

In addition to misplaced outcry about being left out of the public input process, there has been some attempt to turn this issue into a grazing issue.  Frankly, it’s a disservice to all who are committed to water quality to turn this into an us-versus-them issue.  We all can contribute to E. coli loadings, whether it is from our recreation activities in the water, septic systems, livestock, waste treatment plants or wildlife. Interestingly, the E. coli criteria are an “indicator” that there may be pathogens that could cause illness, not a definitive that such pathogens are present. There are E. coli in all warm-blooded animals, but only certain strains pose a risk to human health.

Interestingly, according to researchers, in a paper published in July, “U.S. Recreational Water Quality Criteria: A Vision for the Future,” humans are more likely to get ill from human waste than animal waste. This is also discussed in EPA’s “2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria” document. Further, the illness-causing strain of E. coli is not often found in grazing cattle according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service technical note on nutrient management. Despite that, we all have an obligation to do what is reasonable to protect our state’s water quality.

The Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts encourages folks who are informed and knowledgeable about the time and effort that has gone into this process and who agree that one Categorical UAA and its public input process is much more efficient use of tax payer’s money and potentially hundreds of individual UAAs, each with a separate public input processes, to show up and weigh in at the Sept. 16 public meeting.

If there are instances where the public feels a waterbody was not designated correctly and there is a demonstration of primary or secondary use support, they can still be submitted in the form of a site specific UAA, even after the adoption of the Categorical UAA.

What we don’t want to see is this good, scientifically-defensible approach abandoned.  There are a significant number of drainages, dry draws and ephemeral and intermittent waters in Wyoming that have little to no water. Today they have water quality criteria and standards applied that treat it as though it is capable of supporting swimming type activities. The Categorical UAA corrects that problem.

More detailed information on the Categorical UAA can be found on DEQ’s website at content.govdelivery.com/accounts/WYDEQ/bulletins/1107acb.