Outdoor Groups Wade Into Debate Over Downgrade Of Mountain Stream Quality

Aug 14, 2015

Taking a cold plunge in a high mountain pool is a rite of passage for many.
Credit Wyoming Outdoor Council

The phrase “mountain streams” usually comes with the word “pristine” in front of it. But here in Wyoming, some outdoor recreation groups are saying, not for long. That’s because last year, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality downgraded the status of about 87,000 miles of small creeks and drainages in the state’s highest country. For years, these streams have been considered primary recreation, which means they could be used for swimming and the DEQ would clean them up even if a small amount of e. coli, was found in them. But now the DEQ has re-classified them as secondary, allowing five times more e. coli before they’d get cleaned up.

I wanted to see in person these downgraded waters that the Department of Environmental Quality calls low-flow streams that are less than six cubic feet per second. Hard to visualize, right? So I took some kids up into the Snowy Range near Laramie in search of some of these downgraded streams. The one I found, Telephone Creek, is ankle deep this time of year. The first thing the kids do is jump in.

“Do you guys feel like this is clean water?” I ask the kids.

My daughter, Rhonwyn, answers, “besides the fish guts. Otherwise, it’s clean!”

Rhonwyn found the fish guts, but she’s not worried about the invisible things in the water. Like bacteria.

“As most people know, e. coli comes from poop,” Chris Merrill, associate director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, says. “And so livestock can be a big source for e. coli in water as well as any other warm blooded animals.” His organization is one of the outdoor groups protesting the DEQ’s decision to relax monitoring of shallow streams like the one my daughter is playing in. E. coli can cause severe diarrhea and fever. It’s a bacteria that, every year, the DEQ strives to keep out of Wyoming’s waterways.

Sarah Reese is the mother of one of my daughters’ friends. She says her family does a lot of camping on such streams. She says she’s worried that the DEQ won’t notify people which streams have and haven't been downgraded.

“It would really make me think twice about letting our kids do this,” she says. “And for them, it would significantly diminish their experience.”

Kevin Frederick is the water quality administrator for the DEQ. “It’s important to keep in mind that essentially one organism can make you ill,” he says. 

You're going to dunk your head in that thing, get your hair wet, get your clothes as wet as possible. Just to wash a little bit of that sweat off, yeah, yeah. And it feels great, it's a great part of that alpine experience.

All streams potentially carry e. coli, Frederick says, regardless whether they’re categorized primary or secondary. That’s why the agency decided to take a novel approach. Instead of trying to visit thousands of sites, they used GIS data to group streams by how fast they flow. It may be a first of its kind model. But Frederick says the EPA did approve the state’s new rule,  even though it downgraded 75% of the state’s streams. Then when the DEQ started getting lots of flack, the EPA put the new rule on hold until there was more input from outdoor groups.

“It’s not perfect,” Frederick freely admits. “And for that reason there’s a process in place. And again we do encourage people to tell us where they think that model has broken down and needs to be modified.”

Now the DEQ is calling for written comments. But Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Chris Merrill says this put too much of a burden on individuals to do the work of re-classifying the streams.

“As a citizen, you’d now have to take photos and give specific information about where the stream is, in order to petition that that stream be considered primary recreation.”

Documenting and photographing all those streams would be an especially big job for one guy: Aaron Bannon with the National Outdoor Leadership School. At their headquarters in Lander, Bannon shows me the DEQ’s map on his laptop. He points out all the downgraded streams where NOLS takes youth groups on 30 day expeditions into the high country. There are dozens of squiggly red lines.

“You can see, the Middle Fork itself, it’s in blue, it remains primary,” he says. “And then as you get up into the drainage and see the tributaries, the tributaries are in red, which means, should this rule go through, they’d be downgraded.

“So are those areas your groups are going?” I ask him.

“Yeah, big time, for sure.”

Bannon says, after a dusty, backbreaking hike, all his students want is a bath.

“You’re going to dunk your head in that thing, get your hair wet, get your clothes as wet as possible,” he says, laughing, “Just to wash a little bit of that sweat off, yeah, yeah. And it feels great, it’s a great part of that alpine experience.”

Out in the NOLS yard, a backpacking group returns from weeks on the trail. Robinson Lu says, sure, he jumped in a mountain pool…sort of.

“My friend actually pushed me in,” Lu says. “And at the moment I get in, Oh my God, it’s frigid, the water! And then you can see, the water is really clear in the stream. You can see little fish swimming beside you. I was like, it’s so amazing!

Whether all those streams stay that clear remains to be seen.

The DEQ is taking written comments at their website and they’ll host a public meeting on September 16 in Casper. Outdoor recreation groups hope to persuade them to hold a second public meeting in Lander.