By Cherie Northon, Ph.D.
Anchorage citizens! Breaking news! There is no “Poop Fairy”. Though I see incredible evidence that many people think someone or some thing is going to come along and clean up their pet’s waste—that’s only partially correct. Anchorage has some caring people who not only clean up after their own pets, but they actually pick up other dog’s poop. Unfortunately they are few and far between, yet I applaud them. The rest of the pet waste that is not cleaned up sits along trails, on sidewalks, in parks, on ball fields, at trail heads, and myriad other places—for a while.
In the past month I have fielded angry phone calls and email complaints from a wide range of residents. One mother describes having to dodge piles of poop when she walks her young son to school up 68th Ave. The father of a 3 year old, who took her hiking up at Glen Alps during our mini-thaw, said the trail was awash in puddles of poop, and he was legitimately angry. His solution was to close the trails down as a health hazard. I was told about a resident who flings his pet waste from his yard onto a neighborhood sidewalk.
Reports of bagged poop hanging in trees or sitting alongside trails are common. One condo association manager called to see what could be done about a fellow who walks his two dogs out ONTO a frozen lake to poop, which he leaves there. In my own neighborhood, one resident takes his 3 dogs over to the Campbell Creek bike trail so they can poop, which he never cleans up. One of his favorite spots is an entry area to the trail where little kids walk to Tudor School, it is about 20’ from Campbell Creek, and maybe a couple hundred feet from a trash can (as well as his house).
The different color colonies are then counted. The blue/purple colonies suggest fecal coliform contamination. Pink colonies are a coliform, but not fecal. Rather they indicate the possible presence of other pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, or protozoa and many multicellular parasites. Teal colonies are not counted as E. coli or coliforms, but may be significant other types of bacteria such as Salmonella spp. or Shigella spp.
My mantra is, “what’s on the ground, washes down”. Why and where? Anchorage has separate sanitary and stormwater systems. That means most everything that originates in a building (except those on septics) is captured by the sanitary sewer which travels to the Asplund Wastewater Treatment facility. The rest, commonly called “runoff”, is mostly composed of rain, excess yard and car washing water, and snow melt, and finds its way to a storm drain which carries it untreated to our local creeks. They then convey this runoff out to Cook Inlet.
We are a dog-loving city with an estimated 80,000 pups in the Municipality. According to a “poop calculator”, a 50 pound dog will produce about 342 pounds of waste a year or just under a pound a day. Larger dogs poop more, smaller less—so we’ll use 1 lb. as an average. Eighty thousand dogs times 1 pound/day equals 80,000 lbs., or 40 TONS! Yes, that is correct. Forty tons of poop are deposited in Anchorage every single day.
Are all 40 daily tons being cleaned up? Nope. We are seeing it emerge in the areas where we walk, recreate, bike, or ski. And worse yet, it pollutes our creeks with a variety of pathogenic organisms—carried there by runoff.
While difficult and expensive to test for specific pathogens, Anchorage Waterways Council (AWC) regularly monitors our urban creeks for indicator species of bacteria, such as total coliforms, fecal coliforms, E. coli, and enterococci, which suggest fecal contamination. Almost every local creek and some lakes that we kayak, tube, canoe, fish, swim, and wade in have been designated by the EPA as impaired waterbodies by fecal coliform (the exception is Eagle River which is impaired by toxic and other deleterious substances).
The simplest solution is for every pet owner to clean up after their pet(s) when out in public and to keep their yards picked up. There is a lot of debate about the best disposal method (plastic vs. biodegradable bag in the landfill, composting, flushing, etc.), and they all have their pros and cons. AWC favors bagging poop and disposing of it in a trash receptacle. Yes, it will end up in a landfill, but you and your kids aren’t trying to fish or boat in one as it’s more likely you will be found at one of our beautiful creeks. Carry a “spare” bag for people who have forgotten theirs. Let’s envision carrying a poop bag as a sign of caring for our city, its citizens, and waterways rather than having to dodge puddles of poop.