Nutrient Pollution Exists in Jackson Hole

Teton County is home to the headwaters of the Snake River, which is designated a Wild and Scenic River, and is the foundation to extraordinary biodiversity of wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

These headwaters also supply our only source of drinking water. Below the surface and out of sight, the groundwater in the Snake River Alluvial Aquifer has been federally designated as a Sole Source Aquifer by the EPA for drinking water for all of Teton County – and it is being impacted by nutrient pollution.

What is Nutrient Pollution?

Nutrient pollution is quickly becoming Teton County, Wyoming’s most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problem, and is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water. Nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays, and coastal waters across the nation for several decades resulting in serious environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy. Climate change, population growth, and increased development exacerbate the issue of nutrient pollution through warmer waters and more nutrient loads from fertilizer, wastewater, and urban land use.

Nutrient Pollution & Algae

When too much nitrogen and phosphorus enter the environment – usually from a wide range of human activities – water can become polluted. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. Excess algae, called algal blooms, result in a myriad of negative impacts, including:

  • Harm to water quality, food resources and habitats.
  • Severely reduced or eliminated oxygen in the water, leading to illnesses and even death in fish and other aquatic life.
  • Elevated toxins and bacterial growth that can make people sick if they come into contact with polluted water, consume tainted fish, or drink contaminated water.

Effects of Nutrient Pollution

The effects of nutrient pollution include negative repercussions for human health, the environment, and our economy.  Elevated concentrations of nitrates in our drinking water, documented in several locations across Teton County, are the strongest indicator of human contamination. The drinking water in the Hoback Junction area has reached the point where it is unfit for human consumption. Elevated nutrient concentrations in our groundwater are also producing harmful algae blooms that smother aquatic habitats and negatively impact our prized native fisheries. The continued lack of oversight will only lead to increased drinking water treatment costs, tourism losses, and declining real estate values.

Public Health

Public Health

Public Health issues for Teton County include impaired drinking water and E. coli in Fish & Flat Creek.

Impaired Drinking Water

  • The Teton Conservation District found elevated nitrates in parts of Hog Island, Snake River trailer park, parts of Kelly, Pub Place which is directly above Melody Ranch homes, and Old West Cabins in South Park.
  • Hoback Junctions groundwater already exceeds the EPA’s maximum allowable nitrate concentration.
  • Studies have shown increased risks of colon, kidney, and stomach cancer among people with higher ingestion of water nitrate. Concentrations above 4 ppm indicate contamination.
  • The U.S. drinking water standard for nitrate of 10 mg/L nitrate (as nitrogen) was first set in 1962 in order to protect against infant methemoglobinemia (Blue-baby syndrome). Other health effects were not considered.
Learn More about Drinking Water Quality in Teton County


E. coli in Fish Creek & Flat Creek

  • Fish Creek and Flat Creek now have public health warnings posted because bacteria levels from E. coli are present at high levels from wildlife, domestic animals and human waste.
  • Teton County Conservation District’s 2003 study on Fish Creek approximated that 6% of the E. coli found was from human waste. The only human waste sources are septic systems leaking into the groundwater or the wastewater treatment plants.
  • POWJH had to advocate extensively to have warning signs posted that swimming and float tubing should be avoided at Fish Creek and Flat Creek.

Drinking, accidentally swallowing, or swimming in water affected by a harmful algal bloom can cause serious health problems including:

  • Rashes
  • Stomach or liver illnesses
  • Respiratory problems
  • Neurological effects
Learn More about E. coli in Teton County
Environmental Health

Environmental Health

Environmental issues for Teton County include Fish Creek had 3 times the amount of algae of typical streams and significant increases of algae on the Snake River.

Nutrient pollution fuels the growth of harmful algal blooms which have negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems.

  • When algae grow in excess, they consume oxygen in the water during the process of decomposition which can cause fish kills.
  • Harmful algal blooms sometimes create toxins that are detrimental to fish and other animals.
  • Even if algal blooms are not toxic, they can negatively impact aquatic life by blocking out sunlight and clogging fish gills.
  • Nuisance algal blooms can impact aquatic insect populations by smothering habitat.

Learn more about how the Snake River is the immune system that support an entire ecosystem of biodiversity.

Economic Health

Economic Health

Drinking water costs, tourism income, and real estate values can all be negatively effected by water quality.

Drinking Water Costs

  • Nitrates and algal blooms in drinking water sources can drastically increase treatment costs.
  • It can also cost billions of dollars to clean up polluted water bodies. Every dollar spent on protecting sources of drinking water saves in water treatment costs.

Tourism losses

  • The tourism industry loses close to $1 billion each year, mostly through losses in fishing and boating activities, as a result of water bodies that have been affected by nutrient pollution and harmful algal blooms.

Real estate losses

  • Clean water can raise the value of a nearby home by up to 25 percent. Waterfront property values can decline because of the unpleasant sight and odor of algal blooms.

Sources of Nutrient Pollution

The effects of sustained growth and increased tourism in Teton County have had a profound impact on our regional wastewater infrastructure. The lack of strong regional coordination for wastewater management has put our community's health, environment, and the economy at risk and left our drinking water supply vulnerable to contamination.



We have built a substantial body of evidence that the aquifer is being contaminated and that poor wastewater management in Teton County is playing a significant role in contaminating our only source of drinking water. A Teton County Conservation District 2003 study on Fish Creek approximated that 6% of the E. coli found was from human sources. There are thousands of unregulated, aging, and poorly sited septic systems in Teton County.

The only human waste sources are septic systems leaking into the groundwater or the wastewater treatment plants.

A strong body of evidence exists which confirms that the Snake River Aquifer in Teton County is being contaminated and that poor wastewater management is playing a significant role. In general, septic systems are a significant source of nutrients, especially nitrates, to groundwater and surface waters in rural areas experiencing rapid growth.

  • There are thousands of unregulated septic systems in Teton County
  • Septic systems have been permitted throughout Teton County, many in areas that are unsuitable – due to shallow water table and “poor soils”—for such systems.
  • Proper operation and maintenance of septic systems is one of the most crucial prevention measures to preventing contamination. Teton County does not require any specific maintenance procedures.
  • The National Association of Home Builders estimates that the median age of owner-occupied housing across the U.S. is 43 years old, an indication that, without proactive homeowner maintenance, there may be significant needs for upgrading and/or replacing onsite wastewater infrastructure.
  • Smaller onsite systems, such as septic tanks, have an average lifespan of 20 to 30 years
    The Town of Jackson’s Wastewater Treatment Plant is 41 years old. This wastewater treatment plant services the entire town of Jackson and many areas of Teton County.
  • According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the average life span for a wastewater treatment plan is 40-45 years.
  • Systems that were constructed in the 1970s, around the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972, are reaching the end of their service lives.

Our sewer and septic systems are responsible for treating increasingly large quantities of waste, and these systems do not always operate properly or remove enough nitrogen and phosphorus before discharging into waterways.

It has been shown that improving wastewater treatment is the key to significantly reducing nutrient pollution and can dramatically return bodies of water to health. POWJH is focused on several goals to achieve water quality protection including the development of a comprehensive county-wide water quality management plan, updating Teton County’s septic system regulations, and restoring water quality protections that were removed from the community’s comprehensive plan during the 1990s. Over the last year, POWJH’s primary focus has been to fundamentally change the way that Teton County manages wastewater in the sensitive watersheds of Jackson Hole. Learn More.

Landscape Fertilizers

Landscape Fertilizers

Excess fertilizer enters groundwater or enters surface water via runoff.

When homeowners or turfgrass professionals apply too much fertilizer on lawns, any nutrients not used by the turf infiltrates to groundwater (where it eventually discharges to rivers or streams) or is carried in runoff to the nearest body of water. There, nutrients over-feed algae, contributing to problematic algae blooms and the declining health of our lakes, rivers, and streams.

Livestock, Horses and Pets

Livestock, Horses and Pets

Excess manure and pet waste contributes to nutrient pollution.

When the nitrogen and phosphorus in animal manure and pet waste are not fully utilized by plants they can infiltrate into groundwater or runoff into surface waters and negatively impact water quality.

Stormwater Runoff

Stormwater Runoff

Carries pollutants from the street to our waterways.

When precipitation falls on our cities and towns it runs across hard surfaces – like rooftops, sidewalks and roads – and carries pollutants, including nitrogen and phosphorus, into local waterways.

POWJH is Taking Action

We cannot afford to wait. Learn how POWJH is working to protect and restore the ground and surface waters in Teton County, WY.

POWJH Projects