U.S. Forest Service brass has told Wyoming that the state’s plan to reclassify wilderness-area waterways to allow five times more E. coli bacteria than now allowed runs afoul of federal laws.
Regional foresters Nora Rasure and Daniel Jiron, who oversee the federal holdings in Wyoming, made their comments in a Sept. 15 letter (see below) to Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality. In addition to wilderness areas, the existing, purer classification should remain in place in wilderness study areas, in wild and scenic rivers, in their tributaries, and in rivers the agency has deemed eligible for wild preservation, they wrote.
E. coli is found in human and animal feces and can cause severe gastrointestinal illnesses.
“A change in recreation use designation of these waters from primary to secondary would conflict with congressional mandates under the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968….” the foresters’ letter said. “We ask that all waters managed to achieve the objectives of the Wilderness Act … or the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act … remain designated as primary contact recreation use in order to maintain existing water quality in these areas.”
DEQ is seeking to reclassify all waterways that flow at less than an annual daily average of 6 cubic feet per second (cfs) from the higher “primary recreation” to the lower, “secondary” standard. Lower-flow streams aren’t deep enough to allow swimming and dunking — so-called recreational immersion — that is one of the benchmarks for the higher purity standard, the state says.
But many in the conservation and recreation community say the state’s sweeping reclassification — which shifts 76 percent of all Wyoming waterways from primary to secondary — includes thousands of miles of waterways where people have primary contact with water.
Wyoming Outdoor Council executive director Gary Wilmot said his organization is asking Wyoming DEQ to revise its model for determining what is a “low-flow” stream, and its assumptions on how people use water in remote areas of Wyoming. “These are not dry draws. My kids were swimming in them just a month ago,” Wilmot said of a waterway subject to the state’s reclassification during a DEQ hearing Wednesday evening.
Wilmot said regional foresters Rasure and Jiron are making a reasonable request to Wyoming DEQ in asking it to exclude wilderness areas, wilderness study areas and wild and scenic rivers from the E. coli rule.
“In addition to harboring some of the state’s best water resources, these are important areas for outdoor recreation,” Wilmot said in a written statement to WyoFile. “I suspect that most people in Wyoming would agree, and I hope the DEQ gives this request some thoughtful consideration.”
Wyoming DEQ used what is known as a categorical use attainability analysis (CUAA) to apply the stream reclassification statewide. Many in the agriculture community are eager for the categorical reclassification, because it saves the industry and Wyoming DEQ time.
Previously, all waters were classified as primary contact waters, and reclassifying a waterway to the secondary standard was done on a segment by segment basis. The state’s CUAA instead reclassifies all waters that flow less than 6 cfs on an annual average to secondary use, assuming that 87,775 miles of waterways in Wyoming — many in high country and remote areas — are never used for primary human contact. Other factors were used in the model, such as exempting waterways within a half-mile of trailheads, and within 1 mile of school bus routes.
If implemented as proposed by the state, it would be up to individuals, the recreation and conservation community to initiate stream reclassification proposals on a segment by segment basis.
The reclassification proposal has created a brouhaha among recreation, conservation and environmental groups who say they were left out of Wyoming’s rule-making process. Agricultural interests largely believe the reclassification is proper and took part in extensive DEQ field checks to show how low-flow waterways should be reclassified.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency agreed with recreation groups and required Wyoming DEQ to hold a public hearing where testimony was recorded. EPA refused to approve Wyoming’s reclassification request unless DEQ held a hearing and produced a transcript of comments for review.
The DEQ held its hearing Wednesday in Casper, and asked residents to pinpoint what streams they used for recreation — swimming and dunking — that should retain the higher standard. Several people provided coordinates and descriptions of stream segments they wish to retain primary contact status. But many others focused instead on the DEQ’s method of reclassification, and asked for a revised plan.
Zach Hutchinson of the National Audubon Society said the state’s proposed action contradicts the spirit and letter of the Clean Water Act. “Many assumptions made about recreational activities were incorrect,” he told DEQ officials. “We strongly encourage that there are public meetings around the state like this one.”
Hap Ridgway, president of the Elk Creek Ranch for teens, asked the state to revise its proposed reclassification methods. “Teenagers love water and they’re in it any chance they have.”
Ridgway called for more opportunities for the public to comment. “It’s very difficult to get here,” he said at the Casper hearing. “There are many people in Cody I know who would love to be here.”
He said he is concerned about the “disproportionate nature” of the state’s proposed action. “This changes a lot that doesn’t need to be changed. This is swatting at a fly with a sledgehammer.”
Wilmot, of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, also said the recreation community needs more opportunity to become engaged in the process. “DEQ did not reach the people who are most affected by this: the recreation community.”
The agriculture community, and conservation districts in particular, mostly spoke in solidarity of their support for the state’s proposed plan.
Don McDowell, chairman of the Lingle Ft. Laramie Conservation District, said his members participated with DEQ to “groundtruth” several waterways that might fall within the 6 cfs model for reclassification. Several were dry and others were wet, but well below the 6 cfs flow, essentially confirming the accuracy of Wyoming DEQ’s model for that area, McDowell said.
“Calling these waters primary is going to be a mess, and put a burden on our districts,” McDowell said at the DEQ hearing Wednesday in Casper.
A rare exception among conservation districts might be the Teton Conservation District. Board member Sandy Shuptrine said her board seems split on whether to support the state’s plan, with some members wishing their district be withdrawn from the plan.
“Our district struggles with this,” Shuptrine told DEQ . “We understand our fellow conservation districts, but we live in different landscapes. In the mountainous areas our primary interest is recreation.”
— WyoFile natural resources reporter Angus M. Thuermer Jr. contributed to this story. -Ed
Read the U.S. Forest Service letter to Wyoming DEQ regarding E. coli reclassification: