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Big Cottonwood Canyon resident warns of 'fecal time bomb' as canyon visitation increases

Big Cottonwood Canyon resident warns of 'fecal time bomb' as canyon visitation increases

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Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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Well, more specifically, forest rangers and residents both agree they are tired of hikers and campers leaving human waste in Salt Lake County’s watershed streams while visiting backcountry locations within the county.

That’s what they can agree on, but one resident blames those in charge of the area for the problem while those tasked with maintaining Wasatch backcountry say visitors just aren’t following the rules.

It’s a problem they say has increased over the years and comes as Central Wasatch Commission officials question if visitation to the Wasatch canyons has reached a tipping point as more people venture out to the canyons for recreation.

So where did this No. 2 problem arise?

Evan Johnson, the creator of a group called Save Our Big Cottonwood Creek and a Big Cottonwood Canyon resident, alleges visitors have come into the canyon and, when nature calls, relieve themselves near Big Cottonwood Creek. He said that's caused E. coli counts to rise in recent years and warns the canyon is a “fecal time bomb” as more people travel there this summer.

“They just peel off the road and then they poop on the mountain or pee in the creek or whatever. There are no bathroom facilities,” he said. “There’s so much poop that the creek water is contaminated. … People think the water is clean to drink out of, but upstream, some guy might be peeing in it.”

The Big Cottonwood Creek Watershed exists between Mill Creek and Little Cottonwood Creek canyons and the water from Big Cottonwood Creek creek is used for both recreational and culinary reasons, according to Salt Lake County Watershed and Restoration. It runs from unincorporated land down through areas in Cottonwood Heights, Murray and Holladay. Salt Lake City owns nearly all of the water rights, but most of the land in the backcountry is owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

A 2016 report by county watershed officials note there are typically minimal traces of E. coli in all of the streams in the county. That's usually caused by all sorts of critters that live in the wilderness, but can also be created from human activity.

Water samples seem to support Johnson’s claim, said Marshall Alford, district recreation staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service Salt Lake Ranger District. According to E. coli testing results from 2015 through 2018, there were five times the E. coli counts that were above the county maximum detection limit of 2419.6 MPN/100 ml. Each occurred in a July or August month, where more people are more likely to visit the backcountry.

“The impacts of these activities in these canyons have an immediate impact on water quality,” Alford said. “We understand the impacts and that’s the reason that we have significant efforts to educate, do compliance and provide as much infrastructure as we can.”

Johnson’s biggest beef with the Forest Service is the lack of toilets that he said could help prevent this. He said there are currently 16 toilets in the canyon and there needs to be more. That echoes what Barbara Cameron, president of the Big Cottonwood Canyon Community Council, wrote in a letter to the Utah House Natural Resources Committee dated on Aug. 15, 2018.

“Some claim there are more toilets in the canyons, yet don’t mention that they are in campsites that require an entry fee,” she wrote. “Salt Lake City and the Forest Service have said they intend to take some toilets off the sewer and replace them with vault toilets because the USFS doesn’t have the water or money to maintain flush toilets or provide potable water in the canyons.”

There’s so much poop that the creek water is contaminated. … People think the water is clean to drink out of, but upstream, some guy might be peeing in it.

–Evan Johnson

Forest Service officials agree more toilets would be nice, Alford said; however, those toilets, he added, must be properly located and fit the agency budget. That’s why the ones currently available are located at trailheads, where more people are likely to be. As more visitors wander deeper into parts of the canyon, the agency has tried educating them to use Leave No Trace principles.

“The law isn’t Leave No Trace, but Leave No Trace is a really effective way to communicate how to do those best management principles of managing your waste in the backcountry while also following the rules and laws,” he explained.

That means people should make cat holes at least 200 feet from water, trails or a camp and away from where people are unlikely to walk or camp. These holes should be at least 6- to 8-inches deep and 4- to 6- inches in diameter.

“The cat hole should be covered and disguised with natural materials when finished. If camping in the area for more than one night, or if camping with a large group, cat hole sites should be widely dispersed,” the non-profit organization Leave No Trace writes.

The organization recommends people using toilet paper sparingly outdoors and that if it is used, it should be buried in a cat hole or placed in a plastic bag and carried with the person. It adds that urine has “little direct effect on vegetation or soil” but suggests people should urinate on rocks, pine needles or gravel because it’s less likely to attract wildlife.

Alford said many people traveling to the Wasatch backcountry aren’t following those steps and it has resulted in the worsening water quality Johnson has complained about. Alford said that’s also been visible with waste and toilet paper found in backcountry areas, and he hopes visitors will use designated bathrooms or at least not contaminate the watershed when nature calls.

“Using the bathroom in close proximity to a stream or a river or really any flowing water or a body of water of any kind, that is not adhering to Leave No Trace principles. You manage the impacts to water quality by adhering to those principles,” he said. “Doing so reduces the presence of human waste in the watershed and that results in lower fecal coliform counts when public utilities monitor their water quality.”

As for Johnson, he still would like to see more bathrooms in the future. He said some of his neighbors have resorted to leaving out their own buckets for visitors in hopes of detracting people from contaminating the creek.

“You need four times the toilets you have up there,” he said. “This has been known for 30 years. … They collect millions of dollars out of these canyons and they don’t put anything back in our canyons."

Contributing: Paul Nelson, KSL Newsradio

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UtahOutdoors & Rec
Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.


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