UPDATE: The EPA announced Friday it is extending its public comment period on the Afton water matter to Nov. 15, from its original comment deadline of Oct. 4. -Ed.
AFTON—A couple minutes into Michael Horn’s remarks Tuesday night, he interrupted himself and apologized for shaking, both voice and body.
The topic was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed reclassification of Afton’s drinking water, and it was “a lot” for the local resident to handle, he said. Horn was particularly displeased that the federal agency undermined the will of local residents, and the assertions of town and state officials that the town’s unique water source — North America’s only coldwater geyser — is perfectly safe.
“This process that you’ve deployed here doesn’t reflect that this is a democracy,” Horn told EPA staffers Erin Agee, Jade Rutland and Darcy O’Connor, who listened from behind a table on stage. “In lieu of that, what you’re proposing is an $11 million facility.”
“I hope that you’ll consider being more interdependent with us, learning from us, and learning with our science that we’ve collected over 60 years,” he said.
The couple hundred residents scattered throughout the Star Valley High School’s auditorium erupted into applause and cheer, a reception all of the roughly three dozen residents who spoke received. They were uniformly opposed to the EPA’s preliminary determination, which reclassifies Afton’s water source, the Periodic Spring, from groundwater to “groundwater under the influence of surface water.”
That’s a big change.
Currently, Afton pipes up to 5 million gallons of water daily from the mouth of Periodic Spring, adds chlorine and sends it on its way to faucets and spigots used by the Lincoln County town of about 2,200 residents. That’s an inadequate level of treatment under federal regulations if a drinking water source is influenced by surface water, said Lisa Kahn, an EPA drinking water supervisor who’d traveled to the Afton hearing from Denver with her Region 8 cohorts. Earlier in the evening she explained to the crowd assembled why that is.
“A surface water influence makes that water source vulnerable to contamination — pathogens that live in the surface water like giardia and cryptosporidium,” Kahn said. “No one drinks water directly from a river or from a lake because you know that there’s harmful pathogens … and you could get sick.”
It’s unknown exactly where water soaks into the ground on its way to the Periodic Spring’s opening, a tourist attraction up Swift Creek Canyon which seasonally pulses up to 100 cubic feet of water per second for 18 minutes at a time. But researchers believe that this recharge area is roughly four miles east of the spring’s mouth, at between 9,000 and 10,500 feet in elevation in the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Salt River Range. Based on seasonal fluctuations in flow, turbidity and temperature, and the region’s “karst” channeled and funneled geology, EPA officials surmise that it takes only a “few weeks” from absorption to discharge.
“It looks like it’s [the current] year’s snowmelt that’s coming through the mountain and discharging at the spring,” EPA surface water treatment rule manager Jake Crosby told WyoFile. “Anything in the snow, if it was running through the mountain that rapidly, is probably not getting filtered out.”
Issues have sprung up occasionally over the decades Afton has drawn from Periodic Spring, which was connected to the municipality’s water system via a pipe in late 1950s. In the early 2000s, E. coli was detected in the water system and boil orders were issued.
More generally, Star Valley has struggled with reining in fecal bacteria pollution from domestic sheep and cattle production. Its main drainage, the Salt River, which Periodic Spring flows into via Swift Creek, was classified as “impaired” from E. coli until 2015.
There have also been issues with turbidity — a quality often tied to snowmelt — in the spring water flowing into Afton’s drinking water system. In 2007 there was an eight-day stretch where the outflow tested exceptionally high, over 90 turbidity units, Kahn told the auditorium, adding that typical groundwater has less than a single turbidity unit.
A 2021 analysis for microscopic particulate matter was the nail in the coffin for Afton’s status quo water classification. An EPA contractor found the water was at “high risk” of surface water influence, evidenced by green algae — which needs sunlight to grow and exist — detected in the sample.
While residents, Afton town officials and employees from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality were resistant to the EPA’s conclusions, all parties underscored their own concern for drinking water safety. Some locals cherished their water, and felt there are currently appropriate safeguards in place.
Afton resident Margaret Tueller pointed out that the town transitioned to using 100% well water, which ordinarily supplements the spring in summers, during the 2007 turbidity event, a plan that the EPA approved.
“Did anyone get sick from drinking that? The answer is no,” Tueller said.
“This is a solution looking for a problem,” she added. “For 63 years — since October 12, 1959 — the water coming from the intermittent spring has been a treasure to Afton residents. We love our ice-cold, sparkling, clean, wonderful-tasting water and we don’t want anything to happen to it.”
If the EPA’s determination sticks, there are two paths Afton can take to remedy the situation. The town, which operates on a roughly $4.6 million annual budget, could come up with $12 to $14 million for a filtration and disinfection treatment plant. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which gives Wyoming an estimated $335 million for water infrastructure, is one potential funding source Afton could draw from, Kahn said.
Second, the town could pursue a “watershed control program” that guards against human-related cryptosporidium and giardia contamination. This latter path is an unlikely solution, however, because of snowmelt-related turbidity issues that cannot be controlled, EPA’s Crosby told WyoFile.
“We aren’t sure if they can meet that [turbidity] criteria,” he said.
The town of Afton requested the public hearing, which isn’t required of the EPA when reclassifying public water systems to “groundwater under the influence of surface water.”
A dozen or so Wyoming public water systems have gone through the same reclassification in recent history, Crosby said. He recollected several off the top of his head, including the Madison Campground in Yellowstone National Park; the town of Cokeville’s water well; and Star Valley’s Happy Valley Pipeline.
The level of resistance in Afton is unusual, and Kahn, the EPA’s regional drinking water supervisor, said she understands the town’s frustrations. “Nobody wants” their water to be classified as surface water-influenced, she said, and she recognized “it’s a big deal to install filtration.”
That frustration has boiled over and reached Wyoming’s upper political echelons. Within hours of the EPA’s announcement on September 23, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis broadcast a joint letter backing Afton and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, which studied and made its own judgment that the reclassification isn’t warranted. The EPA’s determination, they wrote, is “putting at risk other spring-fed water systems throughout the state.”
Jennifer Zygmunt, the DEQ’s Water Quality Division administrator, told the EPA in her hearing remarks that there was “fundamental disagreement” between state and federal officials’ interpretation of data. In a June 2022 document, the EPA responded to those disagreements with the state of Wyoming point by point over 23 pages.
There are indications that the fight over Afton’s water may be resolved in the courts. An attorney for the town, Keith Burron, of Cheyenne, wielded the phrase “arbitrary and capricious” — standard lawsuit verbiage — in his own hearing remarks.
“The strong weight of science and data collected to date does not support the final determination,” Burron said. “To the contrary, it supports further evaluation to better understand the spring.”
Burron suggested that the EPA erred in its 2021 analysis that found green microscopic algae in Afton’s drinking water. A “flapper gate” at the spring’s mouth, he said, was malfunctioning at the time, and the town should have first been allowed to rectify the problem.
But Kahn said that the gate has nothing to do with the water’s composition. Water doesn’t pool behind the gate, she said. Its purpose is only to “keep insects and animals out.”
Before making its final decision, the EPA will publish a document addressing all of the questions and charges raised at the September 27 hearing. Public comments, meanwhile, are due into the federal agency by Oct. 4, although DEQ’s Zygmunt and others formally requested that the federal agency push back that deadline.
EPA rules require that public water systems be updated with filtration within 18 months of a surface water-influence determination, Crosby said. The clock would start when the agency issues its final decision.
Wyoming’s Congressional delegation, the DEQ and the town of Afton have all asked for more research, first. Barrasso, Lummis and Cheney’s letter asked for collaboration and an in-depth hydrogeologic assessment and watershed study for Periodic Spring.
“There’s not enough science,” said Josh Peavler, the town of Afton’s public works director.
Peavler emphasized his own concern over the safety of the municipality’s drinking water. He watches his kids brush their teeth with it, and take a drink, every morning, he said.
It’s “hard,” Peavler said, to accept a determination from somebody sitting in an office in another state looking at paperwork.
“I’m here,” he said, “and I’m seeing what’s happening with our water system every day.”
Correction: The turbidity units found in the Period Spring’s outflow in 2007 has been updated to the correct figure. -Ed.