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Watch where you aim: Urine is hurting Colorado’s high country lakes

Researchers use some human insight -- and some cultural markers -- to find out where all the yuck is coming from in Rocky Mountain National Park. Bottom line: Coloradans are peeing where they shouldn’t.

Rocky Mountain National Park visitors line up in front of the restrooms at Bear Lake parking lot on Dec. 25, 2021. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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Call it the Starbucks Effect. 

When Colorado scientists wanted to figure out how much humans are directly contributing to the long-standing nitrogen pollution problems in our high mountain lakes, they needed a new tracing method. 

For decades, researchers have calculated the environmental damage done by nitrogen that rises from Front Range smokestacks, and from human and animal waste-treatment ponds, then falls down on Rocky Mountain National Park in rain or snow. 

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Now they wanted to know how much the various animals who are overrunning the park and peeing in the watershed were contributing to the stubborn nitrogen problem. They had already sorted out the contributions of the pesky elk herds by following them around with clipboards and tracking how often nature called. 

But how to distinguish between human pee and elk pee? 

It’s the triple-shot espresso. 

Humans, all jacked up on Mountain Dew and their backpack-sized French presses, leave caffeine behind when they go where they’re not supposed to go. Track the caffeine at Loch Vale, about 3 miles up the Glacier Gorge trail, and the human portion of the nitrogen that feeds damaging algae in alpine waters suddenly becomes clear. 

The human, direct, we-can’t-hold-it-any-longer amount of the total nitrogen at Loch Vale is about 2%, said Jill Baron, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has monitored conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park for decades as part of a team. That should be enough to impact park policy, even if the percentage is not off the charts, Baron said. 

“And if people know that they’re contributing a significant amount of pollution, they might want to change their behavior,” said Baron, who is writing up the results for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. 

“To me, that screams to recommend to the national park that they put a pit toilet up there,” Baron said. 

The Loch, an alpine lake between the Andrews and Taylor glaciers, during a snowstorm on Dec. 25, inside Rocky Mountain National Park. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Don’t we know it, respond RMNP officials, who have seen Baron’s charts on the Loch Vale studies at public forums in Estes Park. Earlier studies showed caffeine in nearly 60% of samples in 20 park lakes and streams. The highest concentration of caffeine was in Mirror Lake, elevation 11,015 feet, in the Mummy Range. 

Beleaguered park planners have long been seeking solutions for overcrowding and overuse in the most popular spots, from timed entrance ticketing that will continue in 2022, to the parking lot shuttle for the popular set of trails at Bear Lake, to strategies on how to keep elk/human close encounters to a minimum. 

Just under 30,000 people visited Loch Vale in the summer of 2019. 

The potty problem at the high country lakes is one of the top priorities of park facilities planners. But it may take longer than some of the other crowding problems to get solved, said Koren Nydick, RMNP’s chief of resource stewardship. 

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That hikers are ignoring universal rules of the trail demanding they relieve themselves at least 100 feet from water sources is observable truth, Nydick said. Every time a trail crew turns over a rock on a maintenance or building job, Nydick said, they find piles of toilet paper and human waste. Walk a few feet off any RMNP trail in almost any direction, she added, and many of your discoveries will be unnatural. And disgusting. 

Researchers and park officials backed up the caffeine-marker study by sending out interns and volunteers to monitor waste levels along popular trails and waterways. They also used click-counters to tally up humans present on busy days; researchers can then calculate how many potty stops that multiplies out to. 

The upshot is that RMNP absolutely needs more toilet facilities closer to where people are using the outdoors, Nydick said. That’s the easy part. Whether the same public that is soiling protected ground will tolerate the sight of bathrooms in their favorite park views is a much trickier question. 

An intersection of trails inside Rocky Mountain National Park on Dec. 25,. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Since a good portion of the national park was given an added wilderness designation, RMNP must follow sections of the Wilderness Act when sifting these choices. Development in wilderness areas should not damage wilderness “character,” and must jump through hoops of being deemed “administratively necessary.” There are now privies above 13,000 feet in the famous Boulder Field on the Longs Peak hike, but getting agreement on that was its own ordeal, Nydick pointed out. 

“And then another thing is, when you have a privy, you need to maintain it,” she added. “People don’t think about the labor and the cost of keeping any privy in the wilderness.” Who is hiking up periodically to check the state of the toilets? Who is packing in supplies? Who is packing out the refuse? Can composting or other advanced forms of toilets be used in altitudes where things stay frozen much of the year? Is there a new pit to move a privy to when that time comes? 

“When you don’t maintain a privy, it is, as you can imagine, a pretty bad scene,” Nydick said. 

More intern and volunteer survey and counting studies are ongoing around another popular trailhead, Wild Basin. Even when park planners are ready to make recommendations on areas of the park that need new privies, Nydick said, those requests will be prioritized alongside ongoing park needs ranging from roads to bridges to campgrounds to fire management. 

Park and wild lands officials across the West trade ideas on what to do about the waste problem, Nydick and RMNP spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said. Studies underway in the increasingly popular San Juan Mountains are using e. Coli as a marker for the growth in human waste. 

What messaging works with visitors remains an ongoing experiment, Patterson noted. 

RMNP started putting “wag bags” for human waste at trailheads some time ago, and pickup of that concept was by no means immediate, she said. It took awhile in American culture for it to become automatic to pick up after your dog, whether in neighborhoods or the park campgrounds, parking lots and picnic spaces where dogs are allowed. 

Persuading hikers to bag and carry out their personal waste is next-level, she noted. Human “wag bags” are now available at more trailheads, but “we have no way of knowing that if you take it, you are using it and then disposing of it properly,” Patterson said. 

“Nobody’s checking their backpacks as they come out.”