When does the time for studying an issue end, and the time for action begin?
Results of a study were presented to the Laramie City Council and the Environmental Advisory Committee on Thursday showing septic tanks above areas where the Casper Aquifer is vulnerable leaching dangerous amounts of chemicals like nitrates into drinking water. Council members and the committee discussed possible next steps during the work session, including whether it was time for policy or additional studies.
Completed by a team led by senior hydrologist Mark Stacy with Wenck Associates, the study involved testing soils under septic tanks leading down into the water table of the Casper Aquifer. Although the study was lead by the county, the city contributed some funding.
While the areas surrounding the aquifer can have a variety of soil consistencies, the area researched by Stacy’s team was in the Sherman Hills neighborhood just southeast of the Laramie city limits, considered part of Zone 2 in the Casper Aquifer Protection Plan. Zone 2 covers recharge areas that are particularly vulnerable to contamination.
The test property’s soils were unconsolidated; Stacy described the soil in the area as looking “like sand on a beach.” The sandy consistency, he said, allows water to infiltrate more than other soil types.
Despite the septic tank — also called an infiltrator — only being used by two people and being relatively clean, the study found high levels of nitrogen and ammonia, even as deep as 35 feet down. The sandstone of the Casper formation starts at a depth of 25 feet.
The study showed nitrate levels as between 49-91 milligrams per liter at varying depths in the ground. The standard from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is 10 mg/L. Stacy added the numbers also exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for drinking water.
“We have concentrations between 63 and 51 mg/L right in the Casper Formation,” Stacy explained during the work session. “The bottom line is the unsaturated soil at the site is really not doing enough to protect the Casper formation itself and, by inference, the Casper Aquifer.”
For comparison, additional tests done just 20 feet away from the septic tank area showed very trace amounts of nitrates.
While noting additional studies could help provide a clearer picture — whether the numbers are just as high with other soil types or more advanced septic tank systems, as an example — Stacy said ultimately governed bodies are the ones who must decide what policies to make with the results of those studies, and how many studies it takes to make those decisions.
Albany County Commissioner Pete Gosar was present at the meeting and gave comment expressing concerns about “paralysis by analysis.”
“I think as we look forward, this is a real opportunity, in my mind, for the city and county to make some real headway and some smart choices that will determine a future viability, not only economically, but a future of this Albany County and city itself,” Gosar said.
Although Mayor Joe Shumway commented during the meeting this issue is a “very high priority” to the city and that he wants to do everything to protect city’s “greatest asset,” Councilman Paul Weaver said he wasn’t sure there was a whole lot the city can do since the majority of the land is outside of city limits.
“The situation is one where the city’s tools direct tools to do a lot about this are fairly limited, and getting more limited over time,” Weaver said during the work session. “That’s something we need to be aware of when talking about being frustrated about talking things to death and asking about studies is, that’s what the city can do, more or less, at this point.”
Councilwoman Jayne Pearce also wanted to remind city residents that they’re residents of the county as well and should consider that as they vote.