Protecting The Casper Aquifer

Jan 31, 2020

A lot of the water that Wyomingites drink comes from the same source: the Casper Aquifer. In many areas, the aquifer is deep underground. Though in some areas where the water source surfaces, it can be a source of major controversy.

All of the city of Laramie's drinking water comes from the Casper Aquifer, which is to the east of the city and even runs under a good part of it.

Bern Hinckley, is a hydrogeologist in Laramie who has done a lot of research on the Casper Aquifer Formation.

Bern Hinckley digs into the Satanka shale behind the Wendy's parking lot in Laramie. The Satanka formation helps protect the Casper Aquifer from contamination.
Credit Ivy Engel

In the Wendy's parking lot in the middle of town, he showed me an area where the aquifer is just under our feet.

The protective rock layer over the aquifer—the Satanka shale—bursts out of the ground under all the roads and streets zigzagging past us. But that rock gets thinner as you head down the main drag and out of town towards direction the interstate. It's not long before you hit what's called the Aquifer Protection Overlay Zone (APOZ).

"So, this is a deck of cards, these just stacked up like this. And they're coming to the surface here where we can see them," Hinckley said. "So if you were to put something on the ground here or in this valley, it would soak immediately into these very soft, soft sand stones."

That soft sandstone is incredibly absorbent, which means the aquifer soaks up anything liquid, whether it's rain or chemicals, like gasoline.

Now, I've always pictured an aquifer as a big lake under the ground, but that's only half right, according to Hinckley. An aquifer is an area of rock with lots of pores or spaces. Water, or any other liquid, soaks in and collects there. It can then be sucked out by a well, which means that chemicals can easily get into the drinking water.

That's why a lot of activities are limited on the protection zone. The aquifer is only 75 feet or less from the surface, so only certain kinds of businesses can be built here, and they have to follow strict regulations.

But the Tumbleweed gas station is a unique case. The Tumbleweed was built before the APOZ was established in 2002. It was allowed to remain in business under the condition that it didn't expand.

But it recently changed ownership. Manjot Pandher, the new owner of the Tumbleweed, isn't happy with the way the Environmental Advisory Committee designated the APOZ.

"I don't know if they were not educated enough. I have no idea why they did it. If you go to choose an APOZ, why they chose a spot there is a gas station already? I mean, EPA says no gas stations. But then they said nope, that's where we're going to draw the water from," Pandher said.

He said he takes his business's location on the APOZ very seriously and said he's taken a lot of steps to minimize the possible impact of the station.

"I'm a human being. I like people being environmentally friendly and you know, and I am environmentally friendly. And that's the reason I bought this station, instead of running it. We decided to put half a million dollars into it and make sure that it's safe. I wanted to make sure that what we bought it's all it's okay," Pandher said.

But according to Hinckley, having the station there is a threat.

"If the gas tank leaks or the dry cleaner has an accident, it will go straight into the ground straight into the aquifer," he said.

He said this is why it's important that these types of businesses aren't built here. He's participated in the Albany County Clean Water Advocates, an organization that fights for these protections, for years.

Now he's working on another effort-the Pilot Hill Project-to protect the aquifer by turning the whole mountainside into a state park. The idea is to protect the area from any future construction.

But recently, Albany County Commissioners rezoned some land known as the Sweckard property next to the Tumbleweed gas station, and that's causing community members to start protesting all over again.

According to Hinckley, the historically drawn boundary of the zone and the actual area where there is sufficient protection over the aquifer don't agree in a few places. He said some places don't have enough protection but still aren't included in the historically drawn out boundary found on maps. The Sweckard property is one of those places.

"Geologists, like myself, point out that the line that captures the 75 feet criteria is actually probably 60 percent of the way across this piece. So it's a question of whether it's just this little corner where that car's going by versus 60 percent," Hinckley said.

There are currently no plans for what will be built on the property, but it is for sale.

Vi Moats lives next to the Tumbleweed and the Sweckard property. She understands that the gas station is grandfathered in.

"I don't mind the gas station there as long as they're following all the laws," Moats said.

But she's not so sure about allowing new businesses on the aquifer.

"I guess the main thing is that we are so concerned that everyone who lives out there, I hope that they really are truly, truly aware of how serious it is to not protect what is there not just for now, but for our grandchildren, our great grandchildren," she said.

Albany County Commissioners have been getting a lot of pushback after changing the zoning to allow commercial development on the Sweckard property. They say they expect the issue will go to district court.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at iengel@uwyo.edu.