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.”  

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee Lisa Kahn presents her agency’s evaluation that led to a proposed reclassification of Afton’s drinking water source. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

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. 

Red flags

“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.” 

The precise recharge area for the Periodic Spring is unknown, but researchers believe it’s located about 4 miles east of the mouth somewhere in the Salt River Range, pictured here from Star Valley High School. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

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.  

William Wilkes, an Afton town councilor, told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Star Valley Health, the medical center where he works, has not had problems with giardia and cryptosporidium. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

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.

Absolute opposition

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. 

Members of the Afton town council and staff, pictured, listen in on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hearing about a federal determination that could require a new multimillion-dollar drinking water treatment facility. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

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

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 8 staffers Erin Agee, Jade Rutland and Darcy O’Connor listen to Afton residents share their views on the reclassification of the town’s drinking water source at a September 2022 hearing. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

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.” 

Flowing forward 

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. 

Mike Koshmrl

Mike Koshmrl reports from Jackson on state politics and Wyoming's natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures...

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  1. Governments overreaching power to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to fix something that is not broken is not only unconstitutional it is unwarranted at this time

  2. Paul., The mission of the SPA is to keep “the people”safe. It relies on science to do so. Their is no political agenda. Scientific facts are just that, facts, not gut feelings, and definitely not based on what political party is in offive. Facts do matter, just like truth.

  3. If the town of Afton is eventually required to build a facility to treat and filter the water coming from the spring, it would be best if they move the intake of the water to somewhere downstream of the Periodic Spring on Swift Creek. The Periodic Spring is a unique, world class attraction. There are very few intermittent non-geothermal springs in the world and this is thought to be the largest in the world. The town of Afton altered this geologic wonder in the 1950’s with a concrete structure built at the spring opening to pull off off a significant portion of the flow that did not then require treatment or filtration. If the water now requires filtration and treatment, might as well restore the the periodic spring to its original flow condition and take the water from the creek downstream.

  4. Can this problem be addressed by creating 2 water systems, one for drniking water and anotther for Ag water? Using the figures in the article, I am skeptical that the average town resident uses 2,270 gallons of water every day.

  5. If turbidity is periodically high, and algae/pathogens are being detected in the water then it’s pretty clearly being influenced by surface water.

    Emotional pleas and political meddling don’t change the facts.

    Reading some of the EPA documents, it appears that some of this information has been known for decades.

  6. EPA needs to clean up its own self made mess in Michigan/Jackson miss. Perhaps go out to California and enforce its own standards so hundreds of thousands if not million or two on wrong side of town can have good clean water. Force Gov Newsome or Pelosi’s nephew to give clean water to the “crop pickers”. Clean up the worse messes first.

  7. Good times for Wyoming that it is the only state in the Union without primacy under this part of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA has rightly done all the science to prove the system is under the influence but the citizens of Afton want to keep relying on that fact that none of the kids are dead, yet. Sounds on brand for another small Wyoming town that cannot afford proper infrastructure to stay viable.

    The EPA is a far better agency overseeing water in Wyoming than the over regulated State of Colorado with respect to drinking water, but it is clear the science has proved this particular spring source is under the influence of surface water. While I agree with pushing back on some of our spring sources as the EPA does not have a good way to always ensure spring systems are not under the influence unless they are tested rigorously, this one appears to meet the criteria. Afton just does not like the answer.

    Plenty of water operators have not maintained their systems correctly resulting in deaths of their citizens so Afton can tread down the path if they so chose but do not blame the feds when someone ends up dead.

    1. They did work for the people. The people are against the outcome based on their budget. The science is clear, especially with the presence of “green algae — which needs sunlight to grow and exist.” No sunlight on groundwater is possible. Sad, but intervention is needed. The filtrated water will still be “ice-cold, sparkling, clean, [and] wonderful-tasting.”