Albany County Takes Public Comment On Future Of Casper Aquifer

Jul 27, 2012

HOST INTRO: The Casper Aquifer provides fresh groundwater to Laramie and a portion of Albany County. The water is in great condition, and the city and county have traditionally worked in tandem to keep it that way, but their paths diverged a few years ago. Now, Albany County’s most recent Casper Aquifer Protection Plan resolution is open for public comment, and the public has had a lot to say about it. Rebecca Martinez reports.

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REBECCA MARTINEZ: Suzy Pelican fills a bright yellow pitcher with water from the tap in her Laramie Kitchen. She and her husband are members of Citizens for Clean Water, an activist group that has been circulating a petition, calling for stronger restrictions to protect the recharge area over the Casper Aquifer east of town.

SUZY PELICAN: We want to make Laramie area residents much more aware of the importance of the Casper Aquifer to all of us, and it’s really to not take our great water for granted, and to know that we need to protect it.

MARTINEZ: Rain and snow melt seep through the ground in the recharge area – between Laramie and Pole Mountain – and flow pretty much untouched into the Casper Aquifer. That ground water makes up 60-percent of the water in Laramie’s taps and 100-percent of running water in the subdivisions east of town. Sarah Gorin is on the Albany County Planning and Zoning Commission, and is a member of Citizens for Clean Water.

SARAH GORIN It’s a very high quality water source and is relatively pristine, but the aquifer is vulnerable to contamination, the geology is such that there’s a lot of fractures and openings where contamination can openings where contamination can enter the aquifer.

MARTINEZ: Interstate 80 cuts through the recharge area, and area residents fear contamination from vehicle spills. Because much of the land on the aquifer is privately owned, some stakeholders worry about too much development on the recharge area. In the late 1990s, residents asked a team of geologists to map the aquifer and recharge area. A big part of the agreed-upon boundaries of the recharge area depended on the Satanka Formation, a rock layer under Laramie providing a barrier between the surface and the aquifer. The Satanka gets thinner as it moves eastward.

GORIN: What was decided by the geologists who originally put together the plan was that you would need at least 75 feet of Satanka Formation, which is the formation that overlies the Casper Aquifer, to insure that any potential pollution would not filter down to the Casper Aquifer.

MARTINEZ: So the geologists drew a western boundary of the Aquifer Protection Overlay Zone – we’ll call it the APOZ – where they believed the Satanka was at least 75 feet thick.

Laramie and Albany County used the geologists’ data to create a Casper Aquifer Protection Plan – or CAPP – describing the aquifer and its potential threats, and respective ordinances and resolutions to lay out how the land could be legally and responsibly managed. The CAPP restricted certain activities in the APOZ, like building a petroleum pipeline or storing solid waste, and required setbacks from fractures where the aquifer is most vulnerable. The city and county worked in tandem, updating the CAPP, city ordinance and county resolution every two years until about 2006, when the Western boundary became a problem.

GORIN: The Casper Aquifer Protection Plan has a self-updating requirement, of being looked at every two years and the idea was that the line would be refined as new data came in.

MARTINEZ: That year Laramie contracted a hydrologist whose research showed the protected area needed to be bigger and include more land to the west. But Albany County landowners questioned the credentials of Laramie’s contractor – who was not a licensed geologist – and balked at the prospect of expanding the boundary. Mitch Edwards is an attorney in Laramie, and represents a number of those landowners.

MITCH EDWARDS: To some people’s surprise is actually, we’re in favor of protecting the aquifer, because the value of our property and its potential utilization ultimately depends on clean water sources.

MARTINEZ: But Edwards says making sweeping restrictions for an area can devalue the land and impose on an owner’s use of the land.

Both the county and city know that there are areas outside the western border of the APOZ where the Satanka formation is thinner than 75 feet. The Albany County Planning and Zoning Commission suggested a 2,000-foot buffer west of the line, where any proposed development project would have to prove to the board that the area had 75 feet of Satanka to protect the aquifer from contamination. But Albany County Commissioner Tim Sullivan says there’s not enough science behind the suggestion of a 2,000-foot buffer.

TIM SULLIVAN: You can’t just arbitrarily and capriciously move the boundary without running into some serious legal problems and … Unless we have scientific evidence and we go through hearing procedures on the hearing of the boundaries, you know, we’ll end up in court. And, as you know, Albany County doesn’t have a whole lot of money, so what we wanna do is make sure we spend our money judiciously and do things the correct way.

MARTINEZ: But the Citizens for Clean Water group is still pushing for the buffer. Their petition also calls for more scrutiny on all new building projects within the APOZ, asking them to prove they won’t harm the aquifer. The current draft resolution requires site-specific geological studies for all proposed development, but exempts building on property that has already been zoned residential.

There are also certain areas within the APOZ where the county wouldn’t have to consider the thickness of the Satanka as evidence for moving the boundary. Suzy Pelican says that doesn’t work for the Citizens for Clean Water.

PELICAN: This mandated exclusion of verifiable scientific data that’s relevant to the safety of the aquifer is really just unacceptable.

MARTINEZ: County Commissioner Tim Sullivan says he doesn’t expect the Board of Commissioners will make many changes to the draft resolution before it passes.

Still, he says he’s looking forward to seeing the data the Wyoming Geological Survey is collecting about all the aquifers in the state, and hopes it will lead to more satisfactory evidence of where the APOZ boundary should go.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.

HOST: The Albany County Board of Commissioners will be hearing public comments about the CAPP resolution until August 7.