The Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area is 129 miles of watery beauty that is becoming a giant outdoor toilet, and workers are not pleased...
COULEE CITY, Grant County — The Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area is 129 miles of watery beauty that is becoming a giant outdoor toilet, and workers are not pleased.
The National Park Service is studying ways to stop people from defecating along the shores of the lake, which is the long, thin reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam.
“It’s the greatest threat to the health and vitality of the recreation area,” said Debbie Bird, superintendent of Lake Roosevelt. “A lot of people are completely disgusted by this issue.”
The problem is that more than 1 million people a year visit the lake, which has relatively few bathrooms. Most of them are boaters who venture far from campgrounds. Rather than using portable toilets, which the service has required since 2000, too many visitors are doing their business right on the sandy beaches, Bird said.
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The next visitor to the beach is met with a disgusting sight. And park employees are complaining about having to deal with the messes.
Lake Roosevelt is hardly unique. Human waste becomes a problem anywhere people gather in remote areas — from the tops of the Himalayas to Death Valley. Canoeists and hikers in some of the nation’s most gorgeous country must carry portable toilets to pack out their poop.
But instead of a few dozen backcountry enthusiasts, Lake Roosevelt has tens of thousands of visitors every summer weekend. The lake is becoming ever more popular as the population of the Northwest grows, and facilities are not keeping up.
Even boaters who carry portable toilets to satisfy regulations often don’t use them, because they don’t want to clean them out, park ranger Adam Kelsey said.
“People don’t like to share those things,” he added.
When the portable toilet requirement for boaters first began, it was actively enforced by rangers, and a ticket carried a fine of $125.
“We had a potty boat patrol,” Kelsey recalled.
Cutbacks in staffing forced rangers to shift to other duties, and over time people began ignoring the rule, he said.
Bird recently took local officials on a tour of the lake to point out the problem, and seek solutions.
The recreation area officially gets 1.25 million visitors passing through its electronic counters each year, but many more visit the lake without being counted, Bird said.
Human waste is heavily contaminated with bacteria and poses numerous health risks, which also makes cleanup a difficult issue for park service employees. Because of the health concerns, park maintenance people cannot be routinely ordered to clean up human waste, Bird said.
Lake Roosevelt is one of the last undeveloped stretches of water in a region where many of the lakes are surrounded by private homes, said Andy Dunau, director of the Spokane-based Lake Roosevelt Forum, which advocates for protecting the quality of the area. It’s one of the few places left where boaters can slide their craft onto a beach and camp anywhere they want, without paying.
That draws loads of tourists, but too many reject the old Boy Scout value of leaving an area better than they found it.
“Some people really don’t get it,” Dunau said.
Putting more bathrooms into the area sounds like a solution. But the cost of construction and maintenance is prohibitive, and no one wants to see restrooms everywhere, Bird said.
Stricter enforcement and issuing more tickets is not really the answer, Bird said, in part because “you never catch somebody in the act.”
Lake Roosevelt only has eight park rangers, who are busy with a wide range of law enforcement duties, and can’t spend all their time on this problem, she added.
The southern end of the lake is the busiest, with virtually every inhabitable spot taken during summer months, Kelsey said. Many visitors come from the Spokane area, plus Canada and the Seattle area, he said.
Not everyone agrees there is a problem. Vicki Ballard, a manager of the Kettle Falls Marina, said they don’t receive many complaints about this from people who use their marina or rent the 17 houseboats.
“I’ve only heard about it from the Park Service,” Ballard said.
You might say that, at least for now, the agency plans to paper over the problem.
The Park Service has printed up lime-green brochures with rules for dealing with human waste that will be given to all visitors.
The agency is studying whether to sell or even give away portable sanitation devices to visitors, such as “toilet in a bag” products used by mountain climbers, Bird said.
“You can throw them in a Dumpster,” she said.
There is also the prospect of using volunteer boat patrols to educate visitors, she said.
A new shoreline management plan is being developed that will address issues such as building more bathrooms, Bird said.
A long-term, and perhaps more Quixotic, solution is to educate residents to value public lands.
“This has to become part of our culture,” Bird said. “We have to foster an ethic of stewardship.”