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Turbulent Waters At The DEQ Water Quality Public Meeting In Casper

Melodie Edwards

It was standing room only in Casper Wednesday night at a public meeting addressing the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality's decision to downgrade 87,000 miles of the state's streams.

Christine Lictenfells is a longtime guide and outdoor educator. She says the DEQ's decision wasn't based on a clear understanding of how people use high mountain waters. She says  backpackers and horsepackers bathe there and expect clean waters. She had a suggestion for the DEQ.

“First, I'd like to see them take all Wilderness lands or rivers out of secondary recreation [as well as] any Wild or Scenic Rivers or tributaries to Wild and Scenic Rivers. Those are lands that are specifically focused on recreation actually.”

Scrap that assumption that people will not walk more than half a mile from a trailhead or a mile from a population center to play in the water. That's a seriously flawed assumption.

Wyoming Outdoor Council Director Gary Wilmot also had several suggestions for the plan’s revision.

“I also hope you scrap that assumption that people will not walk more than half a mile from a trailhead or a mile from a population center to play in the water,” he said. “That's a seriously flawed assumption.”

He says, as an example, his own young daughters hiked a hundred miles in the high country this summer.

Meanwhile, Uintah County Conservation District's Shaun Sims supports the DEQ's decision. He says it's the outdoor groups that are confused on the science of e. coli, the bacteria most commonly tested for in primary use streams, and now allowed in five times higher concentrations.

Credit Melodie Edwards
Uintah County Conservation District Supervisor Shaun Sims addresses Wyoming DEQ Supervisor Kevin Frederick (right)

“E. Coli is an indictor. It's not an absolute,” he says. “There are a lot of e. coli strains that are not toxic or cause human health issues.”

Sims says it’s the job of conservation districts to protect the state's waters. And he says they can also help the public fine tune the DEQ's new plan.

The state's conservation districts helped collect data for the DEQ and many district representatives turned out in support of the DEQ's decision. Sims spoke on their behalf when he said, “We're all in favor of clean water. We are not asking to degrade. What this is is getting the proper use that that water can sustain so that we can put the valuable resources—our time, our energy, our money—into those areas that have the ability to support primary contact recreation.”

But Teton County Conservation District Chair Sandy Shuptrine  submitted a letter to DEQ requesting that the Teton District be left out of the re-classification, saying their district was almost entirely re-classified because so much of it is at high elevations where streams are smaller.

“Let's acknowledge the differences,” she says. “If they own ranch lands and they want it lower classification for their private property, I don't think any of us have a problem with that. We do have a problem with especially public land areas. This is Wyoming. We're supposed to be pristine.”

DEQ water quality administrator Kevin Frederick says the public comment period is now closed and they’ll revise their plan before re-submitting it to the EPA in coming months.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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