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Waste Problem at National Lakes: Too Many Tourists, Too Few Bathrooms

November 15, 1995

PHOENIX (AP) _ The engineers who dammed the Colorado River had grand visions of hydroelectric power, irrigation and flood control. But cat litter and portable potties?

With water-starved boaters in the desert flocking to the nation’s two largest man-made lakes, pollution from human waste is causing a stink.

Officials say as many as 10,000 people a night camp along the beaches of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, whose nearly 3,000 miles of combined shoreline are open year round free of charge.

Without enough toilets, some of the tourists who boat, water ski and camp at the lakes go to the bathroom on the open shore. Others dump waste from portable johns in the water or sand instead of waiting until they get to pumping stations.

``I don’t know what happens to people, they do their thing where they shouldn’t,″ said James Vanderford, chief of maintenance and engineering for the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Boulder City, Nev. ``They leave their inhibitions and training at home. It’s really crazy.″

Since recreation brings millions of dollars a year to each lake area, officials don’t want to stop the flow of tourists, just the flow from tourists.

Ideas include increasing the number of lakeside bathrooms and pumping stations _ which could result in lake usage fees _ or teaching visitors easy disposal options, such as holding onto their portable johns until they find a pumping station or carrying a coffee can filled with cat litter.

``Anyone that camps on a beach here has to take some responsibility,″ said Joseph Alston, superintendent of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, site of Lake Powell.

Officials from Arizona, Utah and the federal government met last month to discuss water quality at Lake Powell. A public meeting is scheduled for Dec. 7.

Harry Reynolds, a houseboat owner who’s been coming to Lake Powell for 10 years, says something needs to be done.

``It’s not that you can smell or see anything in the water. You just see the mounds of sand you can tell were just dug,″ he said of spots along the beaches where boaters empty their portable toilets. ``It’s disgusting.″

Lake Mead, created on the Arizona-Nevada border in 1936 when the Hoover Dam was built, has 18 toilets for 822 miles of shoreline and 9 million yearly visitors.

Lake Powell, created in 1964 by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border about 160 miles northeast of Lake Mead, has 46 toilets scattered along nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline.

Tourists say most of the waste is not visible or odorous because it gets swept up by the water. But the uninhibited dumping has resulted in dangerous levels of fecal coliform bacteria at both lakes, prompting environmental officials to question how to handle the crowds.

Coliform bacteria, which multiply in human waste, can cause diarrhea, nausea, headaches, fatigue and jaundice.

Water quality along Lake Powell tested dangerously high for fecal coliform bacteria in 1992, the first time since the Interior Department began testing in 1985, Alston said. Several beaches at the lake were closed temporarily this summer when water levels rose by 50 feet, sweeping waste into the lake.

Preliminary findings of a water quality study at Lake Mead also showed dangerous levels of fecal coliform bacteria, Vanderford said. The results are still being analyzed.

Bill Smith, who has brought his powerboat to Lake Powell for 14 years, says he would support limiting the number of people allowed on the lake, but knows any tourist restrictions would be hard to get past lake businesses.

``You get a sense of frustration that a place as beautiful as Lake Powell has this problem in the first place,″ Alston said. ``The time has come to do something about it.″

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