Albany County commissioners and the Laramie City Council tentatively agreed to work toward updating the Casper Aquifer Protection Plan together this coming spring, both sides said Tuesday during a joint work session.
The Casper Aquifer, which is a natural structure, provides 60% of Laramie’s drinking water and is the lone source of drinking water for at least 400 rural residences in Albany County.
A joint protection plan between Albany County and Laramie has not been updated since around 2008.
Per National Geographic, an aquifer is a “body of porous rock or sediment saturated with ground water,” which is water that collects just underneath the surface of the earth in rocks following rain, snow or the like. With the addition of wells, the water in an aquifer can be cleaned and used for consumption. The Casper Aquifer itself is 700 feet thick and consists of sandstone and limestone, according to City of Laramie Natural Resources Manager Darren Parkin.
Approximately 97% of the protection area’s 72 square miles is outside Laramie city limits, according to a presentation that was given at the meeting.
The protection plan is a multi-prong approach to keeping the aquifer safe, whether it be from contaminants, excess development or vandalism. Buying additional pieces of land or swapping for land is also an option for preservation, as the county did with the Pilot Hill exchange, in which 11,668 acres of state trust land was exchanged for 4,343 acres of land that could directly impact the well-being of the aquifer.
“The aquifer is our only contingency plan during times of drought,” Parkin said. “It’s thought that we can carry the city for two years on groundwater before we start having pretty severe water restrictions.”
Though their maps for their protection plans are similar in size and scope, the county and city have different regulations for development, which at times creates tension between the parties. Commissioner Heber Richardson explained that the key difference and point of contention is public vs. private property rights, as much of the aquifer’s land intersects with current or potential private residences and businesses.
“In a situation where someone has private property, you can regulate to a point,” Richardson said. “And then at some point it becomes a taking.”
The county and city originally had a joint-planning office for the protection plan but split in 2006. The city last updated its plan in 2008, while the county updated its in 2011.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the county commissioners and city council agreed that a united approach was needed to assure the continued quality of the water.
“Working with two different maps over the same location seems weird, honestly,” Commissioner Pete Gosar said. “I believe in working with the city on this one. … If you can’t say yes to this project, what can you say yes to?”
Among the city’s chief concerns with the current protection plan are pressure for land development, septic standards, regulation of the recharge area, vandalism and terrorism. The county’s main concerns are property rights and insufficient data showing how development has impacted the aquifer.
Albany County Chairwoman Terri Jones reiterated that, while a collaborative effort is necessary to make the best improvements to the protection plan, it must be done in the best interests of both parties.
“I have interest in it. I would like to see it be done congenially and have it be not weighted,” she said. “It needs to be a plan that can work well or both the county and the city and not weighted to the city side.”
Both the county and city agreed that Interstate 80 potentially poses a significant threat to the aquifer.
“That is the most concern. We have hundreds or thousands of trucks a day going down there with god knows what in them,” Richardson said. “I think we get pretty concerned over things that matter less and not concerned enough over things that should matter more.
“For the entire good of this community, this is absolutely something we have to do.”
While nothing is set in stone yet as far as how the joint collaboration will look, Parkin told the Boomerang he believed Tuesday’s meeting was a strong step in the right direction.
“It would be better for everybody if there was a clear consensus,” Parkin said. “Any time the city and the county can talk about this sensitive topic, that’s great. It’s an important topic and it’s one that needs to be addressed.”