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Human waste a growing problem on the ever-busier Kenai River

Jenny NeymanRedoubt Reporter
On portions of the Kenai River, facilities are few and far between for folks looking to get a little farther away from civilization. But that presents a problem for managing human waste along the river. Stephen Nowers photo

Willow daisies. Tissue roses. White flags in the woods. No matter how clean the euphemism used, the problem along the upper Kenai River remains a dirty one, and there’s no sanitized way to relieve the need to talk around it: Human waste pollution.

“Talking about poop doesn’t really play with a lot of people. They don’t want to talk about it. But we need to start having that conversation to make it publicly palatable to have. And then, hopefully, we can influence change,” said Bobbie Jo Kolodziejski, with the U.S. Forest Service and Kenai River Special Management Area’s interagency coordinator of the upper Kenai River area.

The entire length of the Kenai River is a magnet for recreation, drawing people to its waters and banks in search of fish, scenic views or bird and wildlife sightings. The lower Kenai River, where use of boats with motors is allowed, is more urbanized, in a sense. It’s more heavily used, with a host of boat launches and bank-fishing access points that are open to the public and often complete with restroom facilities. Even in places with no toilet available, it’s fairly easy to access one by a quick boat trip to the nearest launch site, then a quick walk up the trail and/or drive back to town.

Not so on the upper river, in the Cooper Landing area downstream to Sterling. Boat launches are fewer and farther between. Walk-in access points and stand-and-fish spots are often undeveloped. And it’s drift-boat only, where a float trip can be four to eight hours between one public-use facility and the next. There inevitably are times when the need to go fish coincides with the need to go when there’s nothing but wilderness around.

So you take a rest break, make a pit stop, visit the woods, pop a squat, take care of business. And all too often, the leavings are left behind.

“We know it’s a problem, we see the waste out there. It’s usually toilet paper piles, that’s the remnants that you see. It occurs everywhere from the Kenai bridge (at the outlet of Kenai Lake in Cooper Landing) all the way down the river,” Kolodziejski said.

The issue has existed probably as long as recreational use of the river. Kolodziejski remembers transect surveys being conducted in the 1990s to monitor the occurrence of toilet-paper piles found along the river. And the issue was even mentioned in an early Kenai National Wildlife Refuge management plan for the area.

“It showed that in 1948 when the first refuge manager reported to duty on the Kenai refuge, human waste management was already being recognized as a problem. So when I saw that I was like, ‘Whoa, geeze, let’s do something about this,’” she said.

But what? The problem reeks of complications that render it easily deferred. Number one, it’s unpleasant to discuss. Number two, formal solutions would be difficult and costly to construct. Two-seat vaulted toilets, like the sort at most campgrounds and boat launches in the area, can run upwards of $80,000 to install. Less-costly options, like portable toilets, would be difficult to the point of unfeasible to deliver, maintain and remove along the mostly undeveloped upper river corridor.

“It just has always seemed to fall on the priority list, especially when you have other pressing things come about, like bear conflicts,” Kolodziejski said.

Recently, a new effort is underfoot to minimize the toilet paper and related undesirables underfoot along the upper river. Kolodziejski said that the land managers for the area — the forest service, the refuge, Alaska State Parks and Native organizations, are taking renewed interest in the issue, with the Kenai River Special Management Area board focusing more specifically on it.

“We wanted to start raising awareness of managing human waste along the river in sensitive ways,” she said. “At the same time, the KRSMA Advisory Board would like to be working over the next many years together in looking at what infrastructure needs are out there -- maybe it’s temporary or permanent structures to eliminate the human waste and toilet paper out on the landscape, or maybe it’s other infrastructure.”

While studding the upper river with toilets every couple miles is unlikely, there are other infrastructure options. On the Gulkana River, for example, boaters take portable toilets -- often called “wag bags” -- with them, with designated disposal sites provided. Rafters on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon are required to use something similar, and there’s a service that sanitizes the portable receptacles at the end of the trip.

“Right now all we have are the facilities at the boat launches, and that’s it. That’s what people’s options are, or to take the different products with them. There are some cool, creative things going on out there in the world. It’s kind of neat to see how that’s catching on in different areas,” Kolodziejski said.

There are some accepted practices for managing human waste when recreating in the wilderness. The standards of “Leave No Trace” camping hold that when needing to relieve oneself, do so at least 200 feet from camp areas and rivers, lakes or other waterways. If doing more than watering the landscape, dig a cat hole and bury your business. Any toilet paper used should be carried out.

But on the upper Kenai, those standards don’t quite apply. Stay 200 feet away from the water, for sure. And pack out toilet paper. But don’t -- do not, Kolodziejski repeats -- dig cat holes.

The problem is that there are archeological sites along the upper Kenai of cultural and historic significance to the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Kolodziejski said. The Dena’ina Natives had fish camps at several sites along the river, long before Western anglers started coming to the Kenai, and there are house pits and food caches remaining as testament to the significance of the area to the local indigenous peoples. Any sort of digging in the area could disturb sensitive archeological areas. (Editor’s note: Sasha Lindgren, director of tribal government affairs with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)

“No longer is it just a recreational issue and public problem, it’s now desecrating cultural archaeological sites and offending our indigenous people in this area,” Kolodziejski said.

Pack It Out

Around the same time of the renewed KRSMA Advisory Board interest in human waste management, an AmeriCorps project started up that dovetails nicely.

Last year Raven AmeriCorps members Kristine Route and Kristin Fuller, based in Cooper Landing, began a survey of people in the area to determine their environmental concerns. Waste management was mentioned again and again.

“Upon talking to people and having them fill out these surveys, it seemed the number-one thing people were concerned about was the amount of human feces left on riverbanks and trailheads and the amount of trash people leave behind,” Route said.

To investigate further, they monitored a popular beach recreation area on Kenai Lake last summer. They did a cleanup, then took pictures of the area.

“In June we came back and people had been camping there, and we started seeing white flags of toilet paper. In August it was everywhere, you had to really watch where you stepped. In September it flooded, so of course all the feces went into the waterway,” Route said.

The Kenai Watershed Forum conducts water-quality sampling along the entire river twice a year, said Tim Stevens, with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Sampling in the upper river hasn’t shown a problem with high levels of fecal coliform bacteria -- a sign of animal feces in the river, whether from birds, bears or humans -- like there has been at the mouth of the Kenai River. (Editor’s note: Branden Bornemann, environment scientist for the Kenai Watershed Forum, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)

But while waste in the river isn’t a demonstrated water quality issue, it’s still an aesthetic one.

“Nobody wants to come fishing if they see poo all over,” Route said.

And it can pose health risks.

“Say you stepped in somebody else’s poo. Or your dog did, you pet your dog and ate dinner, not thinking about it, potentially getting Giardia or Hepatitis A or Norovirus, the list goes on and on of diseases spread through feces,” Route said.

Since digging cat holes is not advised on the upper river, Route and Fuller researched portable options and discovered the Pack It Out product -- a heavy-duty, double-bagging system lined with a special powder that congeals liquids, contains odor and quickly begins to break down bacteria.

The inexpensive bags can be purchased in various sizes, from single to multiple uses, and can be fit into various seating apparatuses, from low-tech buckets to comfy boxes with cushy seats. Once sealed up, the bags are spill-resistant, virtually odor-free and can be deposited with regular trash in Dumpsters or other garbage receptacles.

It’s a great solution, Route said. But it’s going to take education to catch on.

“That seems more feasible for the upper Kenai. But it just seemed like nobody was really knowledgeable about it,” she said.

So Route and Fuller took on the task of spreading the word and advocating for the use of Pack It Out. Pretty much anywhere they have an opportunity to talk business about people doing their business along the river, they take it.

It’s made for an interesting summer, standing next to a sign saying “Gotta Go?” at softball games and other community events. Running an educational booth at festivals that has kids play a game of trying to set up camp in an area strewn with toilet paper, encouraging retailers to sell the product and rafting companies to provide it for their clients, and speaking at various club, organization and agency meetings.

They’ve been running an education booth at area festivals, giving presentations at agency and community meetings, and speaking with local businesses.

“We went to a Rotary meeting and talked to these businesspeople about human waste, while they’re eating on this nice white table cloth and fancy dishes,” Route said.

But she said the response so far has been positive. They’ve had some success getting rafting companies and lodges to stock the Pack It Out bags. More retailers are agreeing to carry them. And the Soldotna Rotary Club proved to be less squeamish about the project than Route feared, as the club is considering pitching in some money to help, said Marcus Mueller, a club representative.

“Ideally this could branch into Soldotna, the Seward area and then Anchorage just to make everybody more aware,” Route said.

Kolodziejski said the AmeriCorps project has been perfectly timed as a way to immediately start addressing the waste issue through user involvement, while agencies continue to work out what their longer-term involvement will be.

“Because of the cultural sensitivity of the area, the high-use recreation and popularity of the river, I think a lot of the members of the KRSMA board and the agencies representing the land up there would like to see a shift in behavior of the visitors to take on more of the responsibility of it,” Kolodziejski said. “At the same time we’ll be hoping to look out further to get creative with solutions with infrastructure needs or other means that we can help influence to make the situation better out there.

“This is our first year to start that conversation in the public domain and start raising awareness. I am so impressed with the energy and efforts that AmeriCorps has put into this. This is their showcase project, and they’re really doing a bang-up job on it.”

Jenny Neyman is editor of the Redoubt Reporter, which covers news on the Kenai Peninsula. Used with permission.