The Wyoming Outdoor Council created this map, and others, to help residents identify streams that should retain high water-quality standards. It shows, in red, tributaries in Forest Service wilderness areas of the Wind River Range that would be reclassified to allow five times more E. coli than currently permitted. (Wyoming Outdoor Council)

U.S. Forest Service brass has told Wyoming that the state’s plan to reclassify wilderness-area waterways to allow five times more E. coli bacteria than now allowed runs afoul of federal laws.

Regional foresters Nora Rasure and Daniel Jiron, who oversee the federal holdings in Wyoming, made their comments in a Sept. 15 letter (see below) to Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality. In addition to wilderness areas, the existing, purer classification should remain in place in wilderness study areas, in wild and scenic rivers, in their tributaries, and in rivers the agency has deemed eligible for wild preservation, they wrote.

E. coli is found in human and animal feces and can cause severe gastrointestinal illnesses.

“A change in recreation use designation of these waters from primary to secondary would conflict with congressional mandates under the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968….” the foresters’ letter said. “We ask that all waters managed to achieve the objectives of the Wilderness Act … or the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act … remain designated as primary contact recreation use in order to maintain existing water quality in these areas.”

DEQ is seeking to reclassify all waterways that flow at less than an annual daily average of 6 cubic feet per second (cfs) from the higher “primary recreation” to the lower, “secondary” standard. Lower-flow streams aren’t deep enough to allow swimming and dunking — so-called recreational immersion — that is one of the benchmarks for the higher purity standard, the state says.

But many in the conservation and recreation community say the state’s sweeping reclassification — which shifts 76 percent of all Wyoming waterways from primary to secondary — includes thousands of miles of waterways where people have primary contact with water.

Wyoming Outdoor Council executive director Gary Wilmot said his organization is asking Wyoming DEQ to revise its model for determining what is a “low-flow” stream, and its assumptions on how people use water in remote areas of Wyoming. “These are not dry draws. My kids were swimming in them just a month ago,” Wilmot said of a waterway subject to the state’s reclassification during a DEQ hearing Wednesday evening.

Wilmot said regional foresters Rasure and Jiron are making a reasonable request to Wyoming DEQ in asking it to exclude wilderness areas, wilderness study areas and wild and scenic rivers from the E. coli rule.

“In addition to harboring some of the state’s best water resources, these are important areas for outdoor recreation,” Wilmot said in a written statement to WyoFile. “I suspect that most people in Wyoming would agree, and I hope the DEQ gives this request some thoughtful consideration.”


Wyoming DEQ used what is known as a categorical use attainability analysis (CUAA) to apply the stream reclassification statewide. Many in the agriculture community are eager for the categorical reclassification, because it saves the industry and Wyoming DEQ time.

Previously, all waters were classified as primary contact waters, and reclassifying a waterway to the secondary standard was done on a segment by segment basis. The state’s CUAA instead reclassifies all waters that flow less than 6 cfs on an annual average to secondary use, assuming that 87,775 miles of waterways in Wyoming — many in high country and remote areas — are never used for primary human contact. Other factors were used in the model, such as exempting waterways within a half-mile of trailheads, and within 1 mile of school bus routes.

If implemented as proposed by the state, it would be up to individuals, the recreation and conservation community to initiate stream reclassification proposals on a segment by segment basis.

Forced hearing

The reclassification proposal has created a brouhaha among recreation, conservation and environmental groups who say they were left out of Wyoming’s rule-making process. Agricultural interests largely believe the reclassification is proper and took part in extensive DEQ field checks to show how low-flow waterways should be reclassified.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency agreed with recreation groups and required Wyoming DEQ to hold a public hearing where testimony was recorded. EPA refused to approve Wyoming’s reclassification request unless DEQ held a hearing and produced a transcript of comments for review.

The DEQ held its hearing Wednesday in Casper, and asked residents to pinpoint what streams they used for recreation — swimming and dunking — that should retain the higher standard. Several people provided coordinates and descriptions of stream segments they wish to retain primary contact status. But many others focused instead on the DEQ’s method of reclassification, and asked for a revised plan.

Zach Hutchinson of the National Audubon Society said the state’s proposed action contradicts the spirit and letter of the Clean Water Act. “Many assumptions made about recreational activities were incorrect,” he told DEQ officials. “We strongly encourage that there are public meetings around the state like this one.”

Hap Ridgway, president of the Elk Creek Ranch for teens, asked the state to revise its proposed reclassification methods. “Teenagers love water and they’re in it any chance they have.”

Ridgway called for more opportunities for the public to comment. “It’s very difficult to get here,” he said at the Casper hearing. “There are many people in Cody I know who would love to be here.”

He said he is concerned about the “disproportionate nature” of the state’s proposed action. “This changes a lot that doesn’t need to be changed. This is swatting at a fly with a sledgehammer.”

Wilmot, of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, also said the recreation community needs more opportunity to become engaged in the process. “DEQ did not reach the people who are most affected by this: the recreation community.”

The agriculture community, and conservation districts in particular, mostly spoke in solidarity of their support for the state’s proposed plan.

Don McDowell, chairman of the Lingle Ft. Laramie Conservation District, said his members participated with DEQ to “groundtruth” several waterways that might fall within the 6 cfs model for reclassification. Several were dry and others were wet, but well below the 6 cfs flow, essentially confirming the accuracy of Wyoming DEQ’s model for that area, McDowell said.

“Calling these waters primary is going to be a mess, and put a burden on our districts,” McDowell said at the DEQ hearing Wednesday in Casper.

A rare exception among conservation districts might be the Teton Conservation District. Board member Sandy Shuptrine said her board seems split on whether to support the state’s plan, with some members wishing their district be withdrawn from the plan.

“Our district struggles with this,” Shuptrine told DEQ . “We understand our fellow conservation districts, but we live in different landscapes. In the mountainous areas our primary interest is recreation.”

— WyoFile natural resources reporter Angus M. Thuermer Jr. contributed to this story. -Ed

Read the U.S. Forest Service letter to Wyoming DEQ regarding E. coli reclassification:

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Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Water is a vital issue. Pollution of fresh(not sea) waters is a vital issue. it was an issue long before Sternberg came to Wyo to be President of the U of Wyoming. It was an issue long before Earth First popped up as organization.(with monkey wrench essays)
    Some do P R and declare themselves Hero’s of the Planet, by plugging into new era digital cyber machines.
    As to “climate refugees”, Wyoming’s population is one of the lowest, in terms of population density(persons/ acre) and Alaska is only lower, but it is not in the lower 48. Wyoming is the site which many move.(outbound). Why would people be just as inclined to move to Alaska, than the Rockies?
    Alaska has better fishing than Wyoming.

    People in the U S move a lot for a variety of reasons. Courtenay Davis moved from Chicago to Wyoming(Horse Creek). People who created High Country News(Magazine), were in large measure not from Wyoming. or stayed in Wyoming. Look at some that: where are they now: Where is Ed Abbey, he did the ECO piece on Cows? Where is Jill Bamberg publisher of HCN.(in Seattle-2015). Where are the people in the picture on the WYOFILE piece “ED and Me”. Obviously, waster is the essence of life. It rolls down hill. Water is not a mineral. Most of the people in the USA, live near sea water, or on the coasts. Wyoming is a fly over zone, with the least populated state in the lower 48. Millions will not be moving to Wyoming from California in the next 40 years. Why would Wyoming be a security ROCKY zone, as a place of security away from California?
    It is more likely that reputed writers, editors and cyber publishers will drift through Wyo, and move on to the West Coast, See the example of the ex publisher, Jill, of HCN. In some irony, Wyoming has become a metaphor of: there is no there there. See on Y-Cross and its sale, and U of Wyoming values(2015), and how profit was calculated by non-profit sorts. Who polluted the ground waters, near Cheyenne, from the MX missile program? @ Ft Warren AFB? Who exactly, and there are 44 other sites of land and water contamination linked to the U S Military.(and some Atlas rocket/ MX missile silo/sites). Does it rain in Calif?
    Well, we will see this winter. Bill Gates has a El Rancho near Cody, up on the South FORK. but that is just for a jet in from Seattle(for short spells). Would people even feel safe in Cody, with people like the Simpsons there?

    Jim Hagood

  2. Has anyone written a social history of the Wyoming DEQ so that we could understand why a department that was created to be a watchdog for environmental quality is now placing the burden on citizens to document segments? It sounds like the Wyoming DEQ had a backroom meeting and hoped to make sweeping changes without Wyoming citizens noticing. I would like to dispel my suspicions with an accurate assessment of the Wyo DEQ history and trajectory. Isn’t it common knowledge that water quality and access will not only be the global issue of the coming decades, but for the Western states it will be a life and death issue in the face of: overdevelopment in semi-arid regions, volatile water cycles with drought and downpours producing greater erosion, enormous and disproportionate demands for water for enhanced fossil fuel recovery, fish stress and depletion due to higher water temperatures, increased wildlife migrations due to drought, increases in population as the U.S. experiences climate refugees (such as 25 million Californians) seeking security in mountain states?

    Mary Keller

  3. Superb summary of the issues and the meeting in Casper. Thanks to all the people who made the drive to Casper and to WyoFile for informing the rest of us.

    Janice Harris

  4. Kudos to Regional Foresters Nora Rasure and Daniel Jirón for reminding Wyoming DEQ about the federal mandates to protect water quality in wilderness, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and Forest Plan-recommended wilderness and Forest Plan-eligible and suitable rivers. These standards are not optional. The state can’t implement new standards that violate federal law. But I don’t understand why the regional foresters view the downgrading of protection for other waterbodies to be “a positive change for water quality protection of the state’s waterbodies.” If lowering the standards is bad for wilderness waters, it’s probably not that great for other waters either.

    Ann Harvey

  5. Thanks for this informative article that shows how sweeping the change planned would be, without consideration for local conditions. It does not seem as though DEQ really wants to hear from citizens about this issue, but now they must.

    Susan Marsh