There’s an experience almost universally shared by anyone who’s ever ventured into the great outdoors. Nature calls. And you’re nowhere near any sort of modern flush facility. Or even an outhouse.
Apparently, that’s happening to an alarming number of visitors at Lake Roosevelt in northeast Washington. One of the most beautiful sections of the Columbia River is awash in human waste. Correspondent Elizabeth Wynne Johnson has the story.
Lake Roosevelt is a man-made phenomenon: a reservoir backed up behind Grand Coulee Dam. Its natural beauty is breathtaking. Thick woods and steep cliffs loom over sandy coves.
The beaches offer hundreds of unofficial campsites accessible only by boat. They’re legal – just lacking in basic services.
Debbie Bird: "So you guys see back over there behind the trees? It’s everywhere here…."
The Park Service requires overnight visitors to bring some kind of portable toilet. By the looks of things, people aren’t doing it. Rangers and park maintenance crews are fed up and raising a stink. Today lake superintendent Debbie Bird is bringing a key set of witnesses to the scene of the grime.
Debbie Bird: "We walked up off the beach into the vegetation. And we’re looking at an array here of white tissue with [pause] other objects. I’m not going to look too closely."
The group includes Washington state county officials. And northwest Congressional staffers. We spot a couple of makeshift toilets. One consists of a fabric camp chair with a hole cut in the seat.
AMB: "Oh my gosh I can smell it…."
This is not the sort of tour most people want to sign up for. Which is why Bird decided this trip needed to serve double-duty.
Debbie Bird: "The stated reason for today’s activity really was to show people the situation with aquatic plants on Lake Roosevelt."
That was one. The real reason all along, was Number Two.
Debbie Bird: "My priority is to start a conversation about human waste on our beaches."
EWJ: "So you’re telling me people don’t know they’re here for a poop cruise?"
Debbie Bird: "Well, some of them do, yes. [laughing]"
Bird says human droppings, even more than aquatic weeds, are the biggest long-term threat to recreation at Lake Roosevelt. Not to mention public health. Stevens County Commissioner Merrill Ott isn’t surprised, just frustrated.
Merrill Ott: "We would like from the county’s viewpoint to see a lot more recreation, a lot more access to the Lake. But when we see things like this, we understand why the Park Service is concerned about public health (we are too) and we agree, this needs to be taken care of. So how do we do it? What kind of a program to we put in place to help people understand how to take care of the resource?"
The Park Service prefers voluntary measures to new rules. So immediately was talk of a public awareness campaign. New products could help, too.
Bird says campers can buy double-layer bags that make it neat and easy to pack out their own business; the bags can even be tossed into standard trash bins. The Park Service estimates there are probably 500 sullied sites like this around Lake Roosevelt.
Back on the boat, Sean Smith says this is an issue at other U.S. lakes, too. He’s Northwest regional director of the National Park Conservation Association.
Sean Smith: "These problems we’re looking at today, they have the potential to affect not only the environment but to affect the regional economy. I know personally, if I’m going to an area that I know has some sanitation problems, I might go elsewhere."
At the end of the day, Bird bids farewell to her guests. Who learned a little something about so-called issue number one, aquatic weeds. And a little something more about issue number two.
Debbie Bird: "I think mission accomplished. Everybody had a great day… and I think we were very successful in showing people what exactly our issues are out here are. And that’s it. The end. [laughing]"