Water Below: Growing reliance on groundwater may limit activities on overlying surface

Water from the Casper aquifer, which makes up 60 percent of Laramie’s water supply in a normal year, and possibly up to 100 percent in potential drought conditions in the future, requires minimal transportation and treatment before it’s consumed. It is for that reason that a group of Laramie residents and elected officials say they pushed to change the way Wyoming thinks about its water resources.


“It’s all about forward thinking. It makes a whole lot of sense to protect a water source that is pretty pristine rather than to try and clean it up later,” said Sarah Gorin, a member of Citizens for Clean Water, a group of Laramie citizens that has advocated protection of the aquifer for over a decade.

During the 2012 legislative session, a group of lawmakers proposed spending $15 million for the purchase of land over the Casper aquifer, saying the intent was to prevent certain types of future development and guarantee long-term protection of the critical municipal water supply.

But Senate File 93, while supposedly offering a new approach to water protection, was tailored to a potential land deal with Warren Livestock, which owns surface over key portions of the aquifer. The land deal was crafted by Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie). Warren Livestock is a client of Sen. Nicholas’ law firm — a fact that drew allegations of conflict of interest, which helped doom the bill and overshadow the more general idea of investing in groundwater preservation at the surface. Even some members of the Citizens for Clean Water group quietly grumbled about a potential conflict of interest claiming the goal — groundwater preservation — was hijacked. Publicly, many other observers alleged that municipal water protection was the guise for a questionable land deal.

Still, the idea started a dialogue about long-term water supply management that considers preemptive protection, and the issue may again appear before state lawmakers in some other form.

“Our society is constantly challenged with ‘let’s spend some money now to save us money down the road,’ and it’s always a hard sell because you’re not responding to an emergency, and the gains are somewhat speculative,” said Bern Hinckley, a geologist and an advisor to the Citizens for Clean Water.

Threats to the Casper aquifer

Location of the Casper Aquifer Protection Area

The primary risk to the Casper aquifer, according to the City of Laramie’s Casper Aquifer Protection Plan, is development. Development over the aquifer — one of the most contentious issues in Laramie — is guided by the city and county’s Casper Aquifer Protection Plan. The plan prohibits certain types of development—such as cemeteries, feed lots, and chemical plants — over the aquifer.

The land use plan had gone largely ignored since it was finalized in 2002, said Diana Hulme, a member of Citizens for Clean Water. But, in 2006 a $13 million expansion of Jacoby “Red” Golf Course in Laramie was approved only to be shut down later when citizen groups pointed out that the expansion would not only conflict with the Casper Aquifer Protection Plan, but it would also pose great challenges to developers because of frequent flooding in the area.

“Our goal as a citizens group was to remind the city council that there was an aquifer protection plan in place and that everything they needed to protect the aquifer was already contained in that plan,” said Hulme, who was integral in Citizens for Clean Water’s effort to stop the golf course expansion.

Since then, the Casper Aquifer Protection Plan has played a prominent role in development proposals in the area, including the further development of Sherman Hills — a housing area that borders the aquifer’s western boundary. Sherman Hills is not on Laramie’s sewer system and, because of that, has drawn criticism for existing and potential impact on Laramie water supplies.

Some observers believe that septic tanks in Sherman Hills may be responsible for an increase in nitrate levels recorded in the area’s wells. Nitrates are chemical units of nitrogen and oxygen. They can be both natural and man-made. High levels of nitrates can be dangerous, specifically to infants. Chris Moody, a hydrologist who worked on the City of Laramie’s Casper Aquifer Protection Plan, said nitrate levels in Sherman Hills have been measured at 2 milligrams per liter, which, according to Moody, is abnormal for the region.

However, the recorded level is well below the drinking water standards identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — 10 milligrams per liter. Yet some Laramie residents, including members of the Laramie City Council, insist that any development-related contamination should be addressed before it approaches dangerous levels. The nitrate levels are a point of contention between Citizens for Clean Water and another Laramie group, the Casper Aquifer Protection Network. Both groups have extensively researched the aquifer and threats to it, but they have struggled to reach a consensus on the baseline conditions and specific hydrological features of the aquifer.

Potential contaminant sources, septic systems and wells in the Casper Aquifer Protection Area.

“One of the big challenges with the aquifer is the lack of information,” said David Gertsch, the Albany County planner who has been responsible for developing regulations for the county’s Casper Aquifer Protection Plan. “There’s a potential for contamination. It’s there, we just don’t know to what extent.”

If the entire state’s groundwater supply has one thing in common it’s that no one knows enough about it. This leads to problems for areas like Laramie because decision-makers cannot accurately determine what effects development will have in what area. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Groundwater Division and the Wyoming State Geological Survey are hoping to help solve that problem.

Kevin Frederick, Wyoming DEQ’s ground water program supervisor, is sampling groundwater at 33 different locations across Wyoming while the Wyoming State Geological Survey is surveying hydrological data for Wyoming groundwater areas. “It’s the first comprehensive study we’ve done on groundwater quality in Wyoming,” Frederick said.

One of the largest efforts to better understand the state’s water resources is the Wyoming Water Development Commission’s (WWDC) master plan for state water. The plan details water resources — including available sources and projected costs and usage — for every municipality in Wyoming, said outgoing Wyoming Water Development Commission head Mike Purcell.

“We hope that when we’re done with the master plan, every municipality’s water supply system is self-supporting,” said Purcell, referring to the financial viability of water systems.

WWDC has provided valuable assistance in Laramie County (not to be confused with the city of Laramie), where subdivisions and rural areas often depend on groundwater for supplies. A computer application now used by Laramie County officials alerts them to groundwater supply issues associated with any proposed subdivision. But until the state completes its survey of areas like the Casper aquifer and the geologic features that surround it, public officials are playing without a full deck of cards when it comes to protecting groundwater, said Albany County Commission Chairman Tim Sullivan.

Spend now, save later

Water treatment facilities are expensive. Citizens for Clean Water estimates that a facility to treat water from the Casper aquifer — should it become contaminated — could cost $50 million. In 2007, EPA released a study that predicted the United States would spend $75.1 billion on water-treatment-related costs between 2007 and 2027, enough to build the Million Water Pipeline from Flaming Gorge to the Front Range of Colorado eight times, based on the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s estimate for the pipeline.

Tapping alternative water supplies is similarly daunting for state bookkeepers. The Gillette Regional Water Supply Projectis intended to increase Gillette’s access to groundwater resources in Crook County to meet the demand of Gillette’s growing population. This project includes the Gillette-Madison Pipeline that will expand Gillette’s access to the Madison formation at a budget of $217.6 million. The state will fund 67 percent of that, or $145.8 million.

In Wyoming, 92 percent of all public water systems service a population of less than 3,300 people, according to a DEQ guidance document. This means that the cost per individual for any public service is greater than it would be in an area with a denser population.

“Very few cities in Wyoming could ever afford to pay for their own water treatment facility,” said Moody. “There’s just no way. They’d have to fold up shop and move to Casper. …They’d go broke.”

Purcell said it is unlikely any municipality in Wyoming could handle a water treatment or transportation cost without state assistance. Water project costs are difficult to project in rural states, as a small town could install a package water treatment plant for $250,000 while a larger city like Laramie may be looking at starting costs of $25 million.

The variables — water quality, transportation — are numerous, thus the wide range of potential costs. Typically, surface water supplies require more treatment than groundwater resources. Because of its location and quality, the Casper aquifer represents a valuable resource — and huge savings if the community can avoid serious contamination. Water resources contaminated by hydrocarbons, for example, may never be rehabilitated. Frederick estimated that there are 100 cleanup sites on the DEQ’s list.

“A lot of these areas take decades to restore and some might never come off our books,” Frederick said.

So far, development on the western boundary of the Casper aquifer is not under enough of a contamination threat to earn tenure on the DEQ’s books. Nitrates from septic systems, though undesirable, are less harmful than other contaminants. Nonetheless, any community potentially threatened by anthropogenic — or man caused — contaminants should be caring for their water, said Moody.

The land purchase

For Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) the question of the state’s responsibility in preemptive care has an easy answer.

“You know we spend a lot of money fixing things, and water tends to be very expensive,” Rothfuss said. “Something like the land purchase wouldn’t guarantee protection, but it would provide a great deal of protection.” As a result of the criticism generated by the relationship between Nicholas and Warren Livestock, Nicholas decided to turn Senate File 93 over to Rothfuss. “I took up the bill in order to alleviate the bad attention that it was getting. There was no conflict of interest and there wasn’t anything improper going on but because of the reaction we were getting I stepped in,” Rothfuss said.

The land acquisition remains a priority for Rothfuss, and he said he would still like to have funds made available if a deal could be struck with Warren Livestock. Rothfuss believes the next proposal will stand a better chance based on the lessons learned this time. During the process, Rothfuss and other proponents of the purchase identified other sources of funding, including the Farm Loan board, the State Revolving Fund and State Parks.

Gillette water tank

“We’ll be able to move this forward. It’s going to take a while, but I’m confident that we can do it,” Rothfuss said.

Senate File 93 did not result in a long-term groundwater protection plan for the Casper aquifer, but it did rally support from the Laramie community, said Hinckley. He said that some other legislative approach could serve the interests of both water protection and recreational access.

“I came away from it not with great expectations that they would write us out a check but with the hope that it would be a catalyst for community involvement and it has done that,” Hinckley said.

A great deal of support came from Laramie residents who would like the land open for recreation. The land in question connects Laramie to a section of the Medicine Bow National Forest that includes the Happy Jack Recreation Area and Curt Gowdy State Park.

Rothfuss said that the pitch to the state legislature was centered on serving multiple needs of the Laramie community with a single investment from the state, while also protecting interests that extend beyond Laramie.

“This is, justifiably, a huge priority for not just our city or county, but for the state,” Rothfuss said. “This could save the state money in the future and it ensures fresh water for one of the state’s most important assets, the University of Wyoming.”

“When I made the pitch, I told them that if we did (the land purchase), then in 250 years a University of Wyoming student could look to the east of town and see things exactly the way we do now,” said Sullivan, the Albany County commissioner. “That in and of itself should be worth it.”

Tom Hesse is a lifelong resident of Laramie and a recent graduate of the Journalism Program at the University of Wyoming.

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  1. this has been an issue I have made as a plank in my platform every time I have ran for office noone seems to think there is a problem.
    What has to happen be slapped in the face when there is no more water or it is contaminated
    water is a finite thing in our state we only have so much , we now have too meany demands on it both from within our state and without
    water willbe the major fighting point between states in the near future