Frequently Asked Questions

Click on a question below to learn more about the mission of ACCWA.

Albany County Clean Water Advocates is a group of people who banded together in 2007 in order to oppose the plan for a golf course to be located over the Aquifer. They called themselves “Citizens for Clean Water”. Recently renamed, ACCWA is an inclusive, diverse, non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve the high quality and abundant supply of water that flows from the Casper Aquifer and the Laramie River, now and for generations to come. ACCWA advances it mission through education, advocacy, and the application of available scientific knowledge.

ACCWA welcomes anyone interested in the preservation of the Laramie-area groundwater supply. Related information is posted on this website and on our Facebook page.

ACCWA strives to meet its mission of protecting the water supply by raising awareness among decision makers and the general public about aquifer protection issues; testifying in favor of aquifer protection at government meetings; advocating for improvements to regulations and zoning that protect our water supply; providing educational resources; and organizing field trips to provide hands-on understanding of our aquifer, holding our annual art show Sacred Water; and tabling at events such as Freedom Has a Birthday, and Holiday Bazaars.

The Casper Aquifer is the water-bearing portion of the Casper Formation, a stack of sandstone and limestone layers occurring along the margins and in the subsurface of the Laramie Basin. Water from the aquifer discharges naturally in springs and is extracted by hundreds of public and private wells. It is the primary source of drinking water for Laramie and the surrounding area.

The aquifer extends from 50 miles north of Laramie to south of the Colorado border. In the vicinity of Laramie, the Casper Aquifer is present at the surface east of town (Casper Aquifer Protection Area) and beneath other formations under and west of town. [map link]

The Casper Aquifer provides about 50% of the drinking water for the 33,000 residents of Laramie in normal years, and up to 100% in drought years. (Treated water from the Laramie River provides the remaining portion of the city supply.) The aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for rural residents east of Laramie who depend on wells. Together, that’s about 86% of the entire population of Albany County. [map link]

The City of Laramie and Albany County have designated a portion of the aquifer east of Laramie as the Casper Aquifer Protection Area (CAPA). It extends in a three to four mile-wide band along the west flank of the Laramie Range, from the approximate line of 45th Street / Vista Drive to the top of the range, and extends several miles north and south of town. [map link]

This is the area in which rainfall, snowmelt, streamflow, and infiltration of surface contaminants enter the aquifer. Further west, the aquifer is covered with lower-permeability layers that help to keep contamination out.

The special protection area is only 1.6% of Albany County, yet serves 86% of the county population. ACCWA feels that special regulations in this special area are fully appropriate.

“Recharge” means the infiltration into the aquifer of rainfall, snowmelt, streamflow, and any other water present at the surface. Once in the aquifer this water then flows into wells and is delivered to our homes and businesses.

The aquifer “recharge” area is basically the same as the aquifer “protection” area, or the area near the surface east of Laramie, and it is through the recharge process that contamination may enter the aquifer. This is the area that needs to be protected.

Complicating the issue is anti-science language in the County regulations. The decision by the County Commission to exclude scientific data impacts the position of the western boundary of the Casper Aquifer Protection Area (CAPA). This puts the aquifer in danger since development can occur over vulnerable parts of the aquifer and possibly cause contamination. Certain scientific evidence that relates to discussions about the position of the western boundary of the Casper Aquifer Protection Area (CAPA) is forbidden. (Albany County Zoning Resolution, Chapter 3, Section 3, Subsection D(3)).

The majority of the land in the protection area is owned by two entities – Warren Livestock (and subsidiaries) – 41%, and Mountain Cement – 15%. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the University of Wyoming, and the State of Wyoming also own significant tracts across the recharge area – total 23%, including lands managed under the Pilot Hill project (see item 16). The remaining portions, mostly close to the city, are divided among many small land owners [link to map]. This patch work of land owners makes aquifer management and land acquisition complicated.

The Wyoming Constitution establishes the State (public) as the owner of all waters in Wyoming. Use of that water is licensed to individuals, businesses, towns, etc. for specific purposes through the State Engineer’s Office. Similarly, state statute prohibits “the discharge of any pollution or waste into the waters of the state” without a permit. ACCWA’s philosophy is that property owners may exercise their private rights as long as they do not compromise the public water supply by disposing of wastewater or releasing contaminants into the public water supply.

The entire aquifer recharge area lies within Albany County. Ninety percent of the recharge area is under the land use authority of the Albany County Commission. Less than 10% of the recharge are is under the jurisdiction of the City of Laramie. The elected body primarily responsible for protection of the groundwater supply for nearly all county residents is the Albany County Commission.

Prior to 2018, state statute also gave the City limited review authority over new subdivisions in a one-mile band around the city limits (the so-called “doughnut”) to provide orderly accommodation of city growth. Differing views on how land use should be regulated adjacent to cities and towns throughout Wyoming, including the specific issue of aquifer protection for Laramie, led to legislative amendments that now reduce city participation in the doughnut to an advisory role only.

Contamination of our drinking water can come from pesticides, herbicides, road/parking runoff, animal waste, fertilizers, hazardous chemicals used/stored by homes and businesses, and “urban runoff”. Transportation of hazardous materials down I-80 are of concern because Telephone Canyon cuts completely through the Casper Aquifer.

The Casper Aquifer Protection Plan (CAPP) includes discussion and a local inventory of potential contaminants of the Casper Aquifer, including businesses potentially using and storing hazardous materials, individual septic systems, and activity in the I-80 corridor.

In addition to septic system effluent – which contains anything poured down the drain in the home and anything excreted by humans, including pharmaceuticals – contamination of our drinking water can come from anything leaking into the aquifer. In the recharge area infiltration into the aquifer occurs rapidly as snow melts and runoff infiltrates into porous sandstones and fractures that occur in drainages on the land surface. In other words, everything “goes down the drain”.

Standard estimates indicate that more than 350 septic systems are located on the East Grand Avenue portion of the aquifer and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) standards indicate that around 300 gallons per day of water is released by a septic system (for a total of more than 100,000 gallons per day total). Over time the water leaving the septic systems/leach fields reaches the underlying groundwater in the aquifer. DEQ regulations (in Wyoming and many other states) and the scientific literature estimate the nitrate concentration leaving the leach field is generally in the 40 to 50 milligrams per liter (mg/l) range. A 2019 study of a typical septic system in Sherman Hills found a nitrate concentration of 55mg/l beneath the leach field. [Link to Wenk Study] The EPA Drinking Water Standard for nitrates is 10 mg/l.

There are many chemicals and fuel products transported along I-80, which traverses 7 miles of the aquifer recharge area from the east side of Laramie to the Lincoln Monument. The Wyoming Department of Transportation has estimated that 25% of the semi-tractors and trailers haul hazardous materials. A spill large enough to escape containment or quick cleanup would infiltrate into the aquifer, and infiltration of storm water run-off carries oil, grease, metal particles from tires and brake pads, road salt, and other automotive fluids into the aquifer.

A comprehensive evaluation of I-80 risks was completed in 2011 by TriHydro Corporation. That study concluded accident prevention measures and emergency response were the best management strategies. It is encouraging that only one large spill was found in historical records – 200 gallons of diesel – since 1948. The study recommendations regarding improved signage and pavement surface modification have been implemented. For several years, the County pursued State funding for a limited channel lining project, but those applications were declined.

The Albany County Specific Purpose Tax passed in 2010 allocated “$250,000 for remediation of accident caused pollutants or other potential contaminant sources within the Telephone Canyon portion of I-80 as identified by the Telephone Canyon Aquifer Protection Study”. A small portion of these funds was used for the 2011 study. Additional funds were used for a 2020 airborne geophysical survey of the aquifer along I-80, and have been allocated for a 2021 continuation of the study to assess hydrogeologic conditions.

The chances of an aquifer-contaminating spill along I-80, although judged to be small, deserve attention. However, the potentially dramatic impacts of an I-80 spill should be compared with the individually much smaller, but cumulatively larger, day-to-day risks from routine activities across the aquifer, including the incrementally increased contaminant loading from residential and commercial development.

The 2013 East Laramie Waste Water Feasibility Study evaluated 115 private wells and found that “approximately 65% of the East Grand area wells that were sampled show nitrate contamination, with 4% of the wells exceeding the EPA Drinking Water Standard for nitrates which is 10 mg/l.”

Background nitrate concentrations fall between 0 and 2 mg/l. Recent monitor well data on the east side of Laramie encountered concentrations as high as 8.7 mg/l, but there are very few existing wells specifically designed to monitor aquifer contamination.

A 2019 study of a typical septic system in the Sherman Hills area established nitrate concentration profiles beneath the leach field, including values of 55 mg/l.

Regular sampling of the Laramie municipal supply wells has shown little indication of contamination, although an increasing trend in nitrates was suggested in the 2013 study and comprehensive sampling for the full suite of possible contaminants is quite rare.

ACCWA has concluded that significant aquifer contamination is largely confined to local areas of septic system discharge, but does not accept “barely legal” as an acceptable drinking water quality goal. We recognize the great value of the present, generally high quality of the Casper Aquifer for all community members, and seek to maintain that quality through appropriate preventative management strategies.

Since 2001 both the city and county have adopted Casper Aquifer Protection Plans (CAPPs) and associated regulations which provide both general guidance and limited legal protection for our community water supply. These are some of the strongest aquifer protection policies in the state. However, these regulations still allow permitting authorities too much latitude. In addition to resisting any reduction in aquifer protection, ACCWA supports the following improvements:

**ACCWA strongly supports a unified approach to aquifer protection, recognizing that groundwater flow knows no boundaries, that this vital community resource requires community management, and that all citizens of Albany County deserve County and City attention. There should be one, common aquifer protection plan and consistent regulations across both the city and the surrounding county portions of the aquifer, as there was when the CAPP was first established.

**ACCWA accepts the compromise that identified the western boundary of the aquifer protection zone as the point at which 75 feet of undisturbed Satanka Shale is present. But mapping of that criterion must be based on the best available science, not the policy preferences of regulators. The county mapping is known to be in error and should be corrected.

**ACCWA strongly opposes the censorship of valid scientific data that is presently included in county regulations.

**ACCWA believes the CAPP should be routinely updated to reflect current science, contaminant source inventories, and educational opportunities, and to promote both voluntary and regulatory approaches to aquifer protection.

**ACCWA promotes the implementation of minimum lot sizes and limitations on the types of use on the aquifer, and opposes general and specific zoning changes that encourage additional development on the aquifer.

Comprehensive aquifer protection requires a combination of non-regulatory and regulatory management strategies, including education, data collection, best management practices for hazardous and waste materials, zoning and land-use regulation, and land acquisition. Aquifer protection is the responsibility of all the individuals who live and do business on the aquifer, and of the many agencies involved in land-use regulation, highway management and emergency response.

The Casper Aquifer Protection Plan provides a thorough discussion.

Preservation of recharge areas as undeveloped open space is an effective aquifer protection strategy, and can integrate very well with community benefits for recreation, preservation of view sheds, etc. Direct preservation can occur through property purchase, donation, conservation easements, land exchange, transfer of development rights, and memorandum of agreement or understanding which prohibits certain activities. [link to CAPP] The Pilot Hill project (see item 17) is a great example of direct public acquisition for aquifer protection. It covers approximately 13% of the recharge area. The purchase price for this project (accomplished through a land swap) was approximately $2,000 per acre. Transfer of the entire recharge area into public ownership through direct purchase is financially unfeasible.

**Past attempts to acquire the land included a joint effort by the City and Albany County in the 2009 Legislative Session to receive a loan from the State for the purchase of the recharge area. An offer by Warren Livestock to sell a portion of the land to the City of Laramie prompted this effort. While the city was considering options to pay for this purchase a group of land owners from Sherman subdivision east of Laramie signed petitions to stop this willing-buyer/willing-seller transaction on the grounds that the City was trying to surround them and force annexation.

A Specific Purpose Tax was passed in 2010. A group of citizens called Albany County Citizens for Clean Water, Open Space, and Recreation utilized the models of successful projects in Ft. Collins, Colorado and Cheyenne, Wyoming, to propose a portion of the tax funds be used for buying up the recharge area. Initially the county endorsed $4 million for aquifer/open space purchase with the city supporting an additional $1 million. At the last minute the east Laramie property owners again opposed to public land purchase and regulations convinced the county to reduce their portion of the tax to $250,000 for remediation of possible accident-caused pollutants within the Telephone Canyon section of I-80. The City portion of $1 million is dedicated to planning, design, construction of improvements and maintenance for protection of the well head properties in Zone I and vulnerable features in Zone II.

In 2011, the City Council, County Commission, local business leaders, and hydrology experts joined forces to pursue a state appropriation to purchase a large portion of the aquifer recharge area that had been offered for sale. That effort was unsuccessful. One of the questions asked in the Senate hearing was, “before we provide state funds, what have you done to help yourselves through the zoning authority we have given you?”

On September 6, 2017, Albany County signed a purchase option with Warren Livestock Company for a large piece of the aquifer recharge area immediately east of Laramie (approximately 13% of the total aquifer protection area). The initial offer was 5,500 acres for $14 million. (An early 2018 appraisal reduced the price to $10.5 million.)

Since the 2017 purchase option (and three amendments to adjust the price and extend the timeline) has been entirely replaced by two subsequent developments: 1) the University of Wyoming purchased the approximately 1,100 acres of the Pilot Hill parcel closest to Laramie; and 2) the State of Wyoming swapped approximately 12,000 acres of other, isolated tracts of state land for the remaining 4,400 acres of the original Pilot Hill parcel. Thus, the original Pilot Hill project area is now owned by the state and university.

In June 2020 the Albany County Commissioners received a 25-year lease from the State for recreational use and wildlife habitat management of the state-owned land, with an annual lease payment of $35,000. Although “aquifer protection” is not included in the stated Purpose of Lease, the lease includes the explicit provision: “5(k) Lessee shall not allow activity that could be reasonably likely to cause pollution of the ground water.” Of course, the overarching value of the Pilot Hill project with respect to aquifer protection lies in the control of land use, which is reflected in the lease provision that “5(m) Lessee shall maintain as much of the leased area as is reasonable in its current natural state …”.

The management of the county lease has recently (Nov. 2020) been combined with an earlier lease for recreational trail construction on the “School-yard” section (previously managed by BikeNet) under an agreement between the county and the private, non-profit group “Pilot Hill, Inc.”. At this point Pilot Hill, Inc. is seeking management agreements with the University and with BLM to combine their properties into a single “Pilot Hill” project, and with the Wyoming Game & Fish Dept. to manage the southern half of the area as a Wildlife Habitat Management Unit. To move the project forward, in 2019 the county hired an engineering firm that does recreation and open-space planning (SE Group) to develop a land use plan for Pilot Hill. The results of the SE Group work were presented to the public 6/17/2020. (Go to pilothill.org for additional information, the final land-use plan, donation procedures, and volunteer opportunities.)

At the time the initial Pilot Hill sale was offered to the county in 2017, Warren Livestock Company made a companion offer to deed 217 acres to the City of Laramie in return for the City extending 45th Street from Crow Drive to Grand Avenue. This proposed street would run through presently undeveloped land within the Casper Aquifer Protection Area.

The City never took action on the offer, which is now moot because the UW purchase included that property. The potential for such a road being built at some future time is unclear.

ACCWA fully supports the objectives of the Pilot Hill concept and continues to emphasize the importance of aquifer protection in the development and approval of governance structures, management agreements, and the siting and development of recreational access facilities. (updated November 2020)

The Casper Aquifer Protection Plan (CAPP) provides a comprehensive plan for aquifer protection for the City of Laramie and Albany County, Wyoming. The Plan provides historical information, describes the geology of the area, delineates the protection area, and includes a Contaminant Source Inventory that identifies potential sources of water contamination. Also, the Plan discusses the development and implementation of a Contaminant Management Plan. The Plan provides the basis for development of City and County zoning and land use regulations. [City of Laramie CAPP] [Albany County CAPP]

The original Casper Aquifer Protection Plan was initiated in 1997. Citizens were concerned at the time with the wellhead protection plan developed in 1993 through an EPA grant for the City’s municipal wellheads at Turner, Pope and Soldier Springs. As a result of citizens’ concerns that the plan was too restricted around wellheads, the Laramie City Council and Albany County Commissioners instructed the Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) to develop an aquifer protection program including larger portions of the aquifer resource area beyond just the wellheads. The original plan was a joint City/County effort completed by a small army of volunteers from the community working with the EAC. The Casper Aquifer Protection Plan was approved by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality in 2002. The plan was updated in 2004 in response to Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) review comments, then again for the City in 2008 by Whitman Hydro Planning Associates.

The original Casper Aquifer Protection Plan was developed in 1999 – 2002 as an outgrowth of an earlier “Wellhead Protection Plan” for the City of Laramie, as the concerns with water quality were extended to the entire aquifer and all aquifer users. It was a joint County/City document and its conclusions were reflected in companion regulations by the two governments.

In 2007, a professional update of the CAPP was commissioned. The City endorsed the update in 2008, but County officials rejected several of the recommendations presented as being too restrictive or expensive and proceeded to develop their own update through the County Planning & Zoning Commission. This process continued through 2011, when the County Commission adopted the separate County plan currently in effect.

The County Planning & Zoning Commission also developed draft regulations to accompany the Aquifer Protection Plan, but these were rejected by the County Commission in favor of a “substitute” regulation which remains in effect with minor amendments. Objections compiled by the City staff were ignored. There has been a partial moratorium in certain aspects of the county regulations since early 2020, pending revision of those regulations, but little progress has been made as of December 2020.

The technical review committee working on the original Casper Aquifer Protection Plan (CAPP) in 1999 decided that the aquifer was vulnerable to contamination from surface sources anywhere there is less than 75 feet of undisturbed overlying Satanka Shale. The Casper Aquifer Protection Area was drawn to define this area, using data available at the time. Since then, new mapping and other data show that the western boundary of the CAPA is incorrectly placed in several instances. The City has adjusted its version of the western boundary to reflect these facts and to establish an administrative boundary that follows survey lines. In the County version of the CAPP the written criteria for the western boundary now contradicts the accompanying map. This creates the opportunity for expensive legal challenges if development is approved in an area of error.

The connection between development and the potential for aquifer contamination is obvious and inescapable. If our community had known 50 years ago what we know now, we would simply have purchased the entire aquifer recharge area and left it as undeveloped open space.

However, ACCWA does not seek to reverse existing development on the aquifer. The ACCWA position is to guide future community development to the ample areas available outside the aquifer protection area through appropriate zoning and future infrastructure construction. Within the protection area, there should be an emphasis on best management practices for existing development, future residential development should be constrained to low densities, and commercial use should be carefully reviewed for potential impacts.

Virtually any surface development has some potential for groundwater contamination simply because modern lifestyles are supported by a host of chemicals that may escape our control and soak into the ground. Infiltration of contaminants into an aquifer being tapped for drinking water is of primary concern because that is the source of our drinking water. Fortunately, most of the development in the Laramie area does not occur over the Casper aquifer and therefore poses less of a threat to it.

This 2008 CAPP identified specific locations for monitor wells to detect contamination and recommended that the City of Laramie establish a routine groundwater monitoring program. For economic reasons this has been implemented slowly. To date, only two dedicated monitor wells have been located in areas which monitor groundwater flows toward municipal well fields east of Laramie. Groundwater quality is measured at various other wells, but these wells were not constructed for that purpose and likely underestimate contaminant concentration in the most vulnerable zones of the aquifer.

ACCWA understands that there is no quick fix when water contamination occurs Clean-up of water contamination is based on the priority level of the site in the state listing at DEQ, potential exposure to humans and available clean up funds. Because water contamination is an ongoing issue in many Wyoming cities (Pinedale, Casper, Cheyenne, Pavilion, etc.) there exists competition for funding and remediation action. The state and federal responses to these incidents have been marked by delays and high costs. They are continuing problems. Citizens have been left to fend for themselves for long periods of time while state and federal agencies and private corporations conduct tests and studies to determine who will accept responsibility and pay for the remediation.

Historical local examples of known groundwater contamination in Albany County and Laramie include:

• West Laramie. The 1960s annexation of West Laramie into the City due to nitrate contamination of its drinking water wells.

• The Laramie Tie Treatment Plan, Fort Sanders Road. The contamination of the Laramie River due to chemicals in treatment of railroad ties. The Laramie Tie Treatment Plan is a U.S. EPA “Superfund” site that is currently under containment and remediation. The Laramie River itself has been moved three times to avoid contamination from this site.

• The Third Street PCE Plume Orphan Site. The ongoing remediation is to remove dangerous vapors by vacuuming them from the soil. The site was designated by the Wyoming DEQ in 1998.

5th Street PCE Plume. The DEQ is investigating the recently-identified PCE plume along 5th Street.

• WR Metals Plant on Fort Sanders Road. There are extreme arsenic concentrations underground at the old WR Metals Plant.

• Remaining groundwater contamination beneath the old Midwest/Standard Oil Refinery & Laramie Yttrium Plant on N. Cedar St. Since the 1920s various companies operating at this location leaked contaminants into the soil and Laramie River. Most of the upper soil area at the site was cleaned up in 2016 and 2017 under management of the Laramie River Conservation District.

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