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Lodge cleans up sewage ponds

November 28, 2018

Hexagonal plastic pods now crowd the surface of a sewage lagoon overlooking a prized, though ecologically struggling, lake just north of Togwotee Pass.

The bizarre-looking, sunlight-blocking pods serve an important purpose. They insulate the wastewater they’re rafted upon to assist the decomposition organic matter from human waste deposited at Brooks Lake Lodge.

The almost century-old guest lodge invested nearly half a million dollars for a new wastewater treatment system that came on line this summer.

The installation of the new system roughly coincided with the 234-acre lake being declared “impaired” by the state because of an abundance of nutrients and degraded, algae-choked conditions that in the worst of times have caused widespread fish kills.

“We’re excited to get off that [impaired] list, and I think that we’ve positioned ourselves to do that,” said Jeff Golightly, chief advisor to Brooks Lake Lodge owner Max Chapman. “That’s one of the reasons for the investment.”

Though the investment aims to help the lake, Golightly contends the lake’s woes come from other sources.

In late 2016 Brooks Lake Lodge started looking at revamping its sewage system, which for decades has discharged directly into Brooks Lake. A potential connection between the lake’s degraded condition and the facility, which the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality permits, surfaced for the first time that year, when the state agency published a water-quality assessment.

Subsequently, it came out that the lodge had, at times, neglected its required water-quality monitoring. At other times pollutants that turned up in effluent sampled on its way to Brooks Lake were outside federal thresholds.

The violations led to a 2017 DEQ reprimand, a $8,640 fine and settlement agreement that required Brooks Lake Lodge to submit plans for “treatment system upgrades,” including a schedule for construction.

That system is now complete, and Golightly hopes it will end talk of Brooks Lake Lodge having degraded the lake it overlooks.

“We’re disappointed that the narrative is that we impaired the lake, when there’s zero evidence to substantiate that,” he said. “We’re not saying that we haven’t done anything wrong, and we’re embarrassed this has been an issue. We’re proud that we’ve corrected it. In our mind we’ve done what a responsible steward would do, and we’re happy about that.”

Nelson Engineering President Bob Norton, who recommended the replacement technology, was skeptical that the lodge has been to blame for the lake’s struggles, which come to a head late in the summers, when algae blooms turn its waters to a shade of pea soup.

“By the time it gets to the lake it’s not measurable,” Norton said of nutrients dispelled by the lagoons.

The DEQ’s 2015 report found that human-influenced sources, including the sewage lagoons and runoff from the lodge’s horse corrals, contributed between 7 and 24 percent of the nitrogen entering the watershed. While phosphorus and nitrogen are both naturally occurring nutrients, the state regulators postulated that it was nitrogen that was throwing Brooks Lake out of whack. But the study was limited and imprecise, looking at overall inputs into the system. The study didn’t account for how variables like a quarter-mile of wetlands downstream of the sewage lagoons might have scrubbed out some nutrients.

The new wastewater plant, like the old one, will seasonally rely on piping its water into a Brooks Lake tributary, but it’s designed to better clean the water that settles in the rectangular 150-foot ponds.

The DEQ, Golightly said, “pushed hard” for the lodge, located on Shoshone National Forest land, to dispose of its wastewater underground, via a septic system and leach field. Brooks Lake Lodge was on board for going that route, which would have been the cheapest. But that technology was not a match for the conglomerate rock underlying the lodge’s Absaroka Range high-country home, geology that didn’t allow water to seep into the groundwater below quickly enough.

That left the isolated lodge’s owners with a few options, all of which required continuing discharging above ground.

“The problem is, we ran perc[olation] tests, and the soils are way too tight,” Norton said. “That brought us back to the lagoon scenarios, and then we looked at some different manufacturer types of systems and aerators that used the existing ponds out there.”

They settled on a “bio-dome” technology, at a cost of more than $400,000, which used a combination of a floating insulated cover and aeration to ensure that sewage breaks down properly in the lagoons.

The old system faltered because duckweed and algae built up in the summers and stymied the UV treatment meant to kill bacteria. In the winters the wastewater would be so cold and so much ice would build up atop the lagoons, which are at over 9,000 feet in elevation, that biological activity would essentially cease.

The bio-dome lagoons were selected to fix both issues. Despite the first-blush bad optics — releasing treated wastewater into a lake can’t be good, right? — surface-discharging systems can be environmentally sound, Norton said.

“People’s perception is that if it goes away and you can’t see it, then it must be good,” he said. “But that’s not always what happens with a septic tank and leach field. There’s good ones, no question about it, but I think the lagoon system is better because you can see it, you can monitor it, and you can maintain it when you need to.”

Early lab results from treated wastewater flowing out of the new system that Golightly shared with the News&Guide show that all contaminants and parameters, including E. coli and biochemical oxygen demand, have complied so far with the lodge’s permit.

Brooks Lake Lodge still has another step to complete with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to close out the 2017 violation, agency spokesman Keith Guille said.

“Obviously, they’ve taken some steps to improve their system,” Guille said, “and that’s a good thing.”

The outstanding item is an inspection of the lodge’s new and improved UV treatment facility, the last step in treating wastewater before it’s released into the tiny “Horse Corral Creek” that then flows into Brooks Lake. That final hurdle, which will allow DEQ to issue a compliance notice, is planned for next summer, Golightly said.

For DEQ, which will continue monitoring Brooks Lake, next steps will be to come up with a “total maximum daily load” plan, required by the U.S. Clean Water Act to restore impaired waters. It’s unclear how the Fremont County lake will be prioritized among the dozens of Wyoming waterways that are also in need of such a plan, but based on the record it could take some time.

“We do consider that some of these impaired waters, they’ve become impaired over decades,” DEQ Water Protection Manager David Waterstreet said this summer. “Sometimes it does take a lot of effort, work and time to bring these waters back into compliance.”

Will the fish fill out?

Similar to Brooks Lake’s water quality, the fishery’s recovery will be a game of wait and see. The high-elevation watershed, which includes five lakes, is thought to have been naturally fish-less because of an impassable waterfall on Brooks Lake Creek. A Wyoming Game and Fish Department stocking program has turned Brooks Lake into a rainbow trout fishery, though there are indications that the cold-water species is having a rough go of it.

State biologists this summer sampled 40 rainbow trout, and the fish registered on the dainty side of a “relative weight” scale that marks an average fish with a score of 100. Brooks Lake’s rainbows came in at 71 this June, lower than during netting operations four and five years back.

“A relative weight of 71 is low,” said Joe Deromedi, a Game and Fish fisheries biologist. “Those fish are skinny.”

Algal blooms on two occasions have killed fish at Brooks Lake. The worst of the kills, caused by algal decomposition that strips oxygen from the water, came in 2008 and sent a blast of lethal water downstream into Brooks Lake Creek and then the Wind River, killing fish all the way to Dubois. Whitefish, rainbow trout and even hardy sucker species were among the carcasses, which told Deromedi and his colleagues that there was an absolute kill, likely caused by anoxic water totally lacking oxygen.

Though a decade has lapsed since that event, the theory is that Brooks Lake’s skinny rainbows are tied to the suboptimal water quality. Rainbows feed using their eyes, and algae-choked water with poor visibility can make it more difficult for them to find a meal. Low oxygen, or warm water, can also stress them.

“If the water conditions do become more favorable over time,” Deromedi said, “we would expect to see the relative weight increase.”

Any improvements may take a while. Organic material implicated in nutrient problems, he said, tend to settle into groundwater and sediment, and can take many years to flush out or be used up by algae or other organisms.

“My thoughts are it’s going to take maybe decades for the fishery to respond,” he said, “but it will depend on how long it takes the water quality to respond.”

A tip of the hat

One environmental watchdog, who punched a clock plowing snow at Brooks Lake Lodge back in the 1970s, tipped his hat to the owners for updating their sewage lagoons.

“I credit the lodge for taking steps to address this issue promptly,” said Dan Heilig, a Wyoming Outdoor Council environmental attorney and seasonal Jackson resident. “I can’t say the same thing about DEQ, particularly the enforcement and compliance branch. They sat on this for years and didn’t do anything.”

It wasn’t until the News&Guide first reported on Brooks Lake’s plight beginning in 2016, and Heilig started pressing the DEQ, that the state regulatory agency took action to move the historic lodge to fix a system that, at times, was releasing untreated wastewater into a lake struggling with nutrients.

“It’s disconcerting to think that there may be other ‘Brooks Lakes’ out there,” Heilig said. “There are situations where there are ongoing permit violations, but they don’t seem to draw the attention of the regulators.”

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