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DEQ seeks public input on how to address E. coli levels in the Tongue River watershed

Wyoming State Geological Survey
The Tongue River in Sheridan County.

TheWyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is seeking public input for a document that addresses E. coli impairments in parts of the Tongue River watershed in Sheridan County. TheTotal Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) addresses E. coli impairments on three segments of the Tongue River, the Little Tongue River, the North Tongue River, Columbus Creek, Five Mile Creek, Smith Creek, and Wolf Creek.

“The goal of this document is to establish a plan such that we get the Tongue River and the tributaries off the list of impaired waters,” said Ron Steg, TMDL and Assessment Program Lead with the DEQ. “They’re all exceeding a geometric mean of 126 organisms per 100 milliliters [for the DEQ’s 60-day average concentration of organisms per milliliter].”

E. coli is a bacteria that comes from the digestive tracts of humans and warm-blooded animals and that can lead to illness or death if ingested in large enough amounts. It’s often treated at water treatment facilities using chlorine or UV radiation before water is released back into waterways. Steg said E. coli is the most common impairment for the state’s waterways.

“While the TMDL might make some recommendations, I think what's important to understand is that the TMDL does not specify what the next steps are,” Steg explained. “Section 303(d), [of] the Clean Water Act is not self-implementing. In other words, implementation is driven by other existing regulatory and non-regulatory programs.”

E. coli’s introduction to waterways often comes from many sources, which are classified as point and non-point.

“When you think about these types of sources, a lot of them may be what we would call nonpoint source(s), something that we are not regulating, we're not permitting for someone to discharge into those waterways,” said Keith Guille, Outreach Manager with the Wyoming DEQ. “When you think about, whether it's wildlife, or whether it's communities, or humans, or whether it's livestock, this [waste] runs off, when you get rain or snow, then it will run off and move into our waterways. This is where you're getting E. coli to meet our waterways.”

He said that E. coli has been monitored as a problem in the Tongue River watershed for approximately two decades.

Limiting pet, livestock, and wildlife waste is one of the ways to reduce the amount of E. coli in the watershed. But the Tongue River watershed often runs through agricultural lands, where livestock and wildlife have contact with the rivers and streams. Wildlife, both in the Big Horn Mountains and on the prairie also are in regular contact with the waterways.

The 45-day public comment on the TMDL opened on May 24 and will be open through July 8 at 5 p.m. Steg said that nopublic comments have been submitted thus far but that they invite the public’s input and suggestions.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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