The South Platte River starts high up in the Rocky Mountains and is fed by many tributaries. The river nourishes cities and farms as it makes its way through the eastern plains, but its water isn’t as pristine as some of the snow-clad peaks might suggest. A recent study found a range of pharmaceuticals, from heart medication to birth control, high up in the watershed far from any urban center. How did they get there? They were most likely brought by hikers, backpackers, and others enjoying an outdoor experience. So, should we not venture into the backcountry because we could inadvertently affect the water? Absolutely not. There are easy ways to enjoy the outdoors, yet leave no trace behind.
Jamie: If you’ve spent any time in the outdoors, you’ve no doubt heard the adage, “Pack it in, pack it out.” Don’t leave trash or leftover food in the wilderness and try to leave a place better than you found it.
Frani: But what about things that aren’t so easy to pack outlike human waste? Are you supposed to "pack it out" when nature calls and you’re hiking in the middle of nowhere?
Jamie: The decision you make could affect people far away. For example, your choice about where and how you conduct your bathroom activities in a place like Rocky Mountain National Park could affect the drinking water of someone hundreds of miles away on the eastern plains of Colorado.
Ben Lawhon: Probably the biggest single misconception may be that one person really can’t harm a place.
Frani: That’s Ben Lawhon. He’s the education director for The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in Boulder, Colorado.
Jamie: We’re hiking with Ben in the foothills above Boulder to learn more about their organization and how they help people enjoy natural areas with minimal impact.
Ben: There are seven principles to Leave No Trace. We got plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors.
Frani: It’s that third onedispose of waste properlythat we’re out hiking with Ben to talk about.
Ben: I think for a lot of folks the idea of picking up, dealing with, and packing out human waste is probably not the most pleasant thought.
Frani: Definitely not. So instead what they recommendif there’s no facility around, you make something called a “cat hole.”
Ben: That's basically a 6-8” deep hole. The diameter, I like to say jokingly, depends on your aim, but we typically recommend a 4” diameter hole and we recommend that people use the hole to do their business. You make your deposit in the hole.
Jamie: What about the toilet paper?
Ben: People often ask about the toilet paper. We recommend you bury the toilet paper deeply in the hole, mix in soil, cover the hole well, and disguise it, and generally it’s good to go.
Jamie: Okay, well if I made my cat hole and then made my “deposit” is there still a chance it would reach a waterway?
Ben: Potentially. The key there is that we recommend that you do any sort of toilet activity a minimum 200 feet from any water source, campsites, or trails.
Frani: How can you estimate 200 feet in the woods?
Ben: We tell kids it’s about 100 big steps...Roughly about 70 adult paces.
Frani: Does that apply to urine as well?
Ben: Generally we don’t advocate digging a hole because liquid percolates quickly into the soil. The disturbance to the soil from digging is probably not warranted for urine. We do advocate to urinate on a durable surface when you can. The reason being if an animal were to go for the salt in your urine or root around somewhere they otherwise never go, if you can keep that to a durable or non-vegetated surface you minimize that chance. The big take-home is that human waste is one of those impacts in the outdoors that we can do something about. Most people tend to produce roughly a pound of solid human waste per day. Do the math. There are about 7 billion people on the planet. That’s a lot of poop we need to deal with. But it’s an avoidable impact in many cases.
Jamie: And it’s not just bodily waste. Ben and Leave No Trace recommend that you brush your teeth or bathe about 200 feet away from a water source as well.
Ben: Because we deal with cumulative impacts over time all these things add up.
Frani: These best practices aren’t just his opinion. Leave No Trace guidelines are science-based. They work with researchers to make their recommendations.
Researchers like Bill Battaglin...
Bill Battaglin: In the tributaries that feed into the Platte there were quite a few contaminants and around 25 or so pharmaceutical compounds.
Jamie: Bill’s a research hydrologist with the USGS. We met him at a conference for Emerging Contaminants where he presented his work about studying Rocky Mountain National Park and other areas of the South Platte River watershed.
Frani: Bill and his team did a study looking for manmade compounds like pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and personal care productseven chemicals that could come off your clothes, like dyes.
Bill: You’re carrying around some chemicals. The objective of the study was to determine what chemicals were in the park because that was somewhat unknown.
Jamie: They looked at front country sitesplaces where you don’t venture too far from your caras well as backcountry locations where you hike in quite a distance.
Bill: We would be collecting samples from locations that were a mile or more from parking lots and sometimes up to 10 miles away from a parking lot and we would see degradation products of nicotine, lidocaine, which may or may not be coming from use as a topical pain killer or use as a recreation drug. We saw heart medicine, diabetes medicine, and blood pressure control medicine. Sometimes a suite of medications you'd see in a sample that would be, well, there’s an overweight person who has a heart problem.
Jamie: They’ve been sampling for three years in Rocky Mountain National Park and other locations and found chemicals frequently enough to determine they were valid results.
Bill: Other places like downstream of the big campground on the east side we saw EE2. That’s birth control. That’s not coming from any animal. They don't use it to birth control any of the wildlife up there. That’s definitely people. So we know that's a definitive marker of human inputs.
Frani: This emerging research from USGS in places like Rocky Mountain National Park will help Leave No Trace educate about human impact and make recommendations to park and open space managers. No one expects hikers to skip their medications, but instead to urinate and wash their hands 200 feet from a water source. Also, you might want to be aware of what kind of soaps you use...
Bill: Triclosan in particular is one—the antibacterial compounds in hand soaps. It’s one that would not degrade. To us that suggests that perhaps the Park Service should recommend that if you're going into the back country you should use soaps that don't have those.
Frani: The Leave No Trace group says although their goal is to raise awareness about how we impact outdoors areas, it’s not only so the next person can enjoy a pristine hike, but also because these places are sources of our water. Again, Ben Lawhon.
Ben: In the case of us here in Colorado, snow falls in the mountains; it melts in the spring, it runs into our rivers and streams that becomes our drinking water. We’re always making more people but not making more land.
Jamie: But he says, don’t be paralyzed...they’re not asking for perfection when you’re out in the wilderness.
Ben: This is not a heavy-handed approach. It’s not an all or nothing. We’re not the hiking police. We don’t expect you to come out here and levitate over the ground.
Jamie: And in fact he emphasizes their principles aren’t rules—they’re ethics.
Ben: I like to think of an ethic as what you do when nobody’s watching. When you’re the only one that has to make that decision. These aren’t rules. These aren’t regulations. It’s not black or white. It’s a program designed to make people think about what they do in the outdoors, how it might affect the outdoors, and spur them to become stewards of the places they enjoy. 💧
This is the third segment in our series on the South Platte River. Listen to all the stories:
"How a Flood Changed the Course of a River—for the Better"
"Can River Safety and Recreation Mix?"