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Realities of Wyoming's water

Aug 6, 2013 - By Chris Peck

The wide spot in the road known as Eden can be found just beyond To Hell and Gone on the Wyoming highway map.

Just kidding.

Eden is an actual place, as anyone who has driven from Riverton to Rock Springs knows.

You head out of town toward Lander. Drive over South Pass. Stay awake on the 70-mile stretch of lonesome highway all the way to the Farson junction.

Turn south onto highway 191 and there you are -- in Eden.

What makes Eden notable to outsiders is the greenery.

For most of those 70 miles between Eden and South Pass, there is only sagebrush -- plus an occasional crow sitting on a fence post surveying the asphalt for roadkill.

Coming into Eden you see the alfalfa fields.

Roll down the car window and you can hear the tick-tick-tick of irrigation sprinklers.

Trees dot the skyline.

Yes, this surely is Eden -- at least compared to Rock Springs.

Just kidding again.

Driving through Eden recently I thought of the role that water plays in Wyoming.

There isn't much water here, really.

Wyoming ranks as the third-driest state in America, with only Utah and Nevada having less moisture year-round.

But water defines the state just as diamonds make a beautiful woman all the more appealing.

The stark landscape to the sage-covered plains is the stuff of watercolor artists.

A vast Wyoming sky cannot be duplicated.

But it is the accent points fed by Wyoming's waters that truly startle the senses.

The suddenly visible homesteads with old cottonwoods that rise in the distance.

The ribbons of the Sweetwater River, then the Popo Agie, and finally the Wind River that slice through miles of parched prairie.

Precious waters protect Wyoming trout, propel Wyoming river rafters, prompt visitors to turn and say ``I'd like to live there'' when driving by river bank homesites in Dubois or Thermopolis, or Jackson.

The waters, frozen or fresh, allow for fishing and hunting, tourism and recreation, mining and natural resource extraction all over the state.

And one more reality. None of us would last more than a few days without drinking water that is pure and uncontaminated.

All of this adds up to why Wyoming waters must be managed and protected.

When the Environmental Protection Agency recently dropped its study of the impact on groundwater due to hydraulic fracturing around Pavilion, there should be no rejoicing.

Many in Wyoming don't like the EPA. But most everyone in Wyoming recognizes that rare and reliable supplies of water represent a state treasure.

The American Petroleum Institute couldn't help but crow about the EPA's decision to drop its study of groundwater pollution in Pavilion that appeared to be related to fracking. Said the industry lobbying group's spokesman Erik Milito, ``Another fatally flawed water study could have a big impact on how the nation develops its massive energy resources.''

True enough.

Flawed studies aren't useful. And of course the nation needs all the energy it can find. Only days ago The Ranger ran a story that energy use worldwide likely will increase by 56 percent over the next 30 years thanks to economic growth in China and India.

But the impact on water from mining, drilling, and other human activity must be monitored and tracked -- even in Wyoming.

The state already sees degradation in downriver streams from the huge Power River coal mines (the mines are among the leaders in trying to mitigate that situation).

Cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake are dying from a water-borne disease. The Popo Agie had an e-coli warning less than a month ago. It's not the first time.

The good news: Wyoming's groundwater contamination is low and has been that way for a decade, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In the 21st century Wyoming will play a key role in the world's thirst for new energy. Most likely, Wyoming will be a place where engineers will fine new ways to extract coal, oil and natural gas through such techniques as fracking. That's how it's done.

But in 30 years Wyoming will still be thirsting for its water, too.

The state of Wyoming will need to get it right as it now takes on the study of possible ground water contamination around Pavilion due to fracking. We need to know. Does fracking screw up the water supply -- or doesn't it?

Down the road, good people across Wyoming will eternally need to be vigilant about the state's water quality and water supply.

It's the one liquid we all need to survive.

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