Wyoming can’t ignore water pollution data submitted by the public or academic institutions when that’s the only information available to determine whether streams, lakes and rivers are polluted, the U.S. EPA has told state officials.
That was one federal regulator’s response to the state’s plan to limit data it uses to determine surface water quality. Under a draft plan, the state seeks to use only data that is collected by governmental entities or contractors to support water-quality determinations.
Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality, which administers the federal Clean Water Act in the state, proposed cutting out citizen scientists and academic institutions Feb. 20.
“Data used to make use support determinations must be collected by a person employed by, or under contract with, a governmental entity,” the state proposal reads.
The EPA criticized the Wyoming plan in a letter dated March 19. Laws and regulations require Wyoming to consider “all existing and readily available water quality related data and information,” the EPA wrote.
That includes “information about waterbodies for which water quality problems have been reported by members of the public and academic institutions,” wrote Andrew Todd, water division chief of EPA Region 8.
The conflict marks another instance in which Wyoming has sought to weaken water quality protections only to be rebuffed by federal authorities who enforce national standards. The EPA recently criticized the state’s plans to allow Aethon Energy to discharge pollutants from the Moneta Divide gas- and oilfield near Shoshoni, and five years ago it said Wyoming had not given the public ample opportunity to comment on a plan to downgrade the status of 87,775 miles of streams.
In addition to eliminating data from the public and academic institutions when determining “impairment” of water quality, the DEQ also proposes new qualifications for sample takers. If adopted, samplers would have to have a four-year science degree, two years of field experience or special training by a qualified technician.
Other requirements would be imposed on sampling procedures, plans and audits. The DEQ’s proposed changes would allow citizen and academic data to supplement other water quality information submitted by government agencies and their contractors.
DEQ’s proposal is the result of a “long, thought provoking process,” wrote Bobbie K. Frank, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, a group that stewards county landscape conservation and agriculture programs. Her association specifically supported proposed training and field-experience requirements, among other elements, she wrote. The revisions are a “significant addition to collecting credible data,” her letter reads.
The Wyoming Stock Growers Association supports the DEQ proposal, the group’s executive vice president wrote WyoFile.
“I have seen too many instances in the past when they listed a stream based on questionable monitoring data provided by outside parties,” Jim Magagna wrote in an email.
WyoFile did not receive a response from the DEQ to a request for comment.
“We feel that these changes strike the appropriate balance whereby DEQ will accept data collected by 3rd parties following proper protocols,” his email reads, “but will only do a listing based on data collected by a governmentally authorized entity.”
In contrast, the Wyoming Outdoor Council believes the proposed changes are “an attack on citizen science,” John Burrows, the group’s conservation advocate said. Requiring a four-year degree or two years’ field experience creates an “arbitrary and restrictive barrier,” the group wrote in a letter.
“Holding a four-year degree in Biology or Environmental Science does little to guarantee that a water quality sampler will do a better job of collecting credible data than someone with a two year technical degree or a motivated high school student,” WOC’s letter reads. “They should focus on the protocol or training, making sure samplers are trained on how should you go about collecting data,” Burrows told WyoFile.
Wording describing the proposed methodology is confusing, WOC wrote. “Instead of unnecessarily restricting who can collect data … based upon employment, we suggest that the department focus on a robust training and oversight process for the various groups … involved in sampling efforts,” WOC’s letter reads.
DEQ’s proposed revisions grow from an initiative launched by former Gov. Matt Mead when he was in office, according to the DEQ proposal. He sought to improve water-quality sampling data.
One goal of sampling is to determine if a waterbody is polluted beyond acceptable levels for its classification and designated uses. Such impairments could stem, for example, from E. coli bacteria, sometimes from wastewater treatment, wildlife pets or agriculture. Naturally occurring selenium can pollute waterways when flushed by irrigation, mining or oil and gas production, the DEQ states. Sediments can pollute when eroded from barren lands or stream banks, according to the agency. Oilfield pollutants such as salty water produced from gas wells can also impair waterways.
Once an impairment is identified, the polluted waterway is supposed to get listed for corrective action, Burrows said.
“If one of the uses of the water is recreation and you found E. coli levels were exceeding a certain threshold through sampling, that would be an impairment,” he said. That pollution would be “an issue you would be required to remedy,” under the Clean Water Act, he said.
The EPA said Wyoming cannot bar sample submissions the way it proposes.
“If the only existing and readily available water quality related data and information for a water body comes from a member of the public or an academic institution, the State is not permitted to ignore the data or refuse to make a use determination merely on the basis of the origin of the data,” Todd’s letter reads.
“The EPA is also concerned that the education and training requirements currently contained in the proposal are vague and overly restrictive,” the agency said in an email.
WOC obtained the EPA letter and shared it with WyoFile.
Competing interests have jousted over water quality in Wyoming for years — “a back and forth that has gone on through time,” Burrows said. In 2018, the WACD and county-level districts completed years of data collection from hundreds of small streams, allowing the DEQ to downgrade classification of many waterways. Because the waterways couldn’t enable full-body immersion and, hence, recreation, DEQ proposed changing the classification of 76% of the state’s waters.
EPA, the U.S. Forest Service and recreation groups protested but in 2015 the DEQ forged ahead and eventually adopted most of its proposed changes.
Other conflicts have erupted over surface water quality and who can collect water samples that document degradation. Ranchers have sued water watchdog activists for trespassing and the Wyoming Legislature has passed laws beefing up protection of private property from unwanted data collectors.
In its comments, WOC made an argument for efficiency during a time of governmental budget restrictions. “[W]hen done appropriately with the proper training and oversight, the data collected by [private citizens and academic institutions] can be an effective and cost-efficient way to collect data for use support decisions – particularly in a time when government resources and personnel are limited,” the group wrote.
The EPA said the proposal doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more pollution. “While this proposal could result in less data being available to identify potential water quality issues, less monitoring doesn’t automatically trigger more pollution so predicting exact impacts is not possible,” the agency email reads.
The agency also does not approve or disapprove the proposed new methodology document, the email reads.
“EPA does have a role in reviewing and acting on state listing and delisting of impaired waters and will continue to review the inclusion and exclusion of data used for these purposes,” the email reads.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.