The scoop on dog poop, Filthy, stinky and as toxic as insecticides

Priya Hutner holding four bags of dog poop on Donner Lake. | Priya Hutner

It’s a beautiful day in Tahoe as I set out for a late afternoon walk in the woods. Three miles into my walk, I hold four bags of dog poop left sitting along the trail. The following day it’s a bike ride in Carpenter Valley and more bags than I can count. I don’t think I am alone feeling frustrated. Both dog owners and non-dog owners alike are quick to lament the sight of poop bags littering the area, and no one wants to step in Fluffy’s remains left on the trail filling their grooved trail runners with stinky poop.

Dog waste is categorized by the EPA in the same category as herbicides, insecticides, oil, grease, toxic chemicals and acid drainage from abandoned mines.

Just once, I’d like to catch a person leaving that plastic bag of dog poop on the trail steaming in the sun. I wonder, do they quietly look around before covertly place the fresh poop bag behind a rock or under a tree with the promise of retrieving it after finishing a walk? Alas, it is often forgotten to be left behind filled with your adorable pooches’ poop for someone else to pick up. This is a daily occurrence on every beach and well-traveled trail in the Tahoe Sierra.

Wildlife poop vs. dog poop
There’s no question that Tahoe is a dog-friendly region. And when it comes to dog poop, many dog owners don’t see the difference between dog poop and coyotes or a bear pooping in the woods.

When I spoke with Amy Berry of the Tahoe Fund in February about the amount of trash in the winter, I mentioned to Berry that I’d rather see dog poop left on the ground than plastic bags lying around the woods, which breaks down into microplastics that enter our lakes and waterways. Berry disagreed, saying that the dog waste left on the ground is a bigger problem.

“Dog poop contains toxins that leach into the lake, the source of our drinking water. Most people think of dog poop like bear poop. It’s natural, so just leave it in the woods. Most dogs eat a diet of processed food that is not the same as bears eating berries. It is important to pick up dog poop to prevent the toxins from getting into our water source,” explains Berry.

“We need to avoid making a false equivalence with wildlife scat. Food sources for dogs and bears are completely different. Leaving pet waste in the environment is like importing nutrients, which are bad for water quality,” adds Laura Patten, senior science policy analyst for the League to Save Lake Tahoe, which keeps a close eye on pollution in the Tahoe Basin. “The best way to avoid contributing to the problem is to clean up after your pet each and every time. Then make doubly sure that the poop bag ends up securely inside of a trash can, preferably at your home.”

Why does dog waste matter?
“Pet waste is one of many small sources of pollution that can add up to larger problems for Tahoe’s water quality and clarity. It’d be a real shame if dog poop was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Patten. The League reports that volunteers picked up nearly 1,000 dog poop bags left behind in 2020.

 

Berry also notes that dog waste is labeled a non-point source pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This places it in the same category as herbicides, insecticides, oil, grease, toxic chemicals and acid drainage from abandoned mines.

According to the EPA, animal waste contains two main types of pollutants that harm local waters: nutrients and pathogens. When this waste ends up in water bodies, it decomposes, releasing nutrients that cause excessive growth of algae and weeds. This makes the water murky, green, smelly and even unusable for swimming, boating or fishing. In addition, dog poop is full of bacteria and parasites. One gram of dog poop can contain up to 23 million fecal coliform bacteria.

“Excess nutrients stimulate aquatic growth. Waste that goes into the system is nutrient rich, aquatic plant growth gets so high that it can have a really adverse impact on the ecosystem,” explains Beth Christman, director of restoration programs for the Truckee Watershed Council.

According to Erin Ellis, community engagement director for the Truckee-Tahoe Humane Society, there are roughly 125 dogs per square mile in the region. With about 197 miles in the region (excluding Lake Tahoe) that equates to 24,625 dogs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a typical dog excretes three-quarters of a pound of waste per day. That’s 274 pounds of poop per dog a year, which equates to about 6.74 million pounds of dog poop a year in the Tahoe-Truckee area.


“Dog poop contains toxins that leach into the lake, the source of our drinking water. Most people think of dog poop like bear poop. … Most dogs eat a diet of processed food that is not the same as bears eating berries. It is important to pick up dog poop to prevent the toxins from getting into our water source.”   –Amy Berry



Bag it, bury it or flick it?
Nonprofits around Tahoe agree that plastic bags filled with dog poop and waste on the trail wreak havoc on the environment. Plastic bags pollute the environment and break down into microplastics that enter our water system. Plastic can take up to 500 years to decompose and therefore slows down the decomposition of the waste inside. Compostable dog bags are better, but some are also slow to degrade.

However, leaving the waste on the ground is a detriment to local watersheds, making it imperative to bag the waste it and dispose of it even if it has to be carried home.

With an influx of new residents and about 15 million people visiting Lake Tahoe every year, the region continues to battle the trash issue and poop bags are just another form of trash.

“I am a dog owner. I clean up after my dog and carry the filled bag with me when I walk or hike. Leaving the plastic bags on the trail is an environmental nightmare,” says Truckee attorney Alison Bermant, who has an adorable chocolate lab named Layla.

While Bermant picks up after her pooch on paved trails and beaches, if she’s hiking on a remote trail Bermant, she says she doesn’t use a plastic bag. She believes there is a difference between walking dogs on paved trails and in neighborhoods as opposed to remote hiking trails, a sentiment that most local dog owners share.

“When I am hiking in a remote area, I believe in flick it or bury it. The solution to pollution is dilution. What’s the difference between dog poop and goose poop around the lake? In most places around the Tahoe region, there is nowhere to dispose of the plastic baggies and that is a problem,” says Bermant.

What is the best practice when hiking in a remote part of the woods – bury it or flick it off the trail?

“The best way is to treat it just like you would with human waste if you’re out camping and bury it,” explains Berry. This is a last resort if dog owners are unwilling to carry it out.

Berry explains that Tahoe Fund is also working with the Washoe and Placer Counties, the Town of Truckee and City of South Lake Tahoe to add more receptables in high traffic areas.

“We are trying to put them everywhere,” she says.

One challenge Berry explains is that any dog waste containers need to be bear proof. If a receptable is put out that says to only put dog poop bags in, people will put other garbage in it, too.

The Clean Tahoe organization was also recently hired by Placer and Washoe counties to increase litter services on the North Shore, and have already been doing more on the South Shore. The Take Care Tahoe Program has been doing outreach to try to get people to pick up after dogs with catchy slogans like: “Be #1 at picking up #2.”

Local organizations work hard to educate people, many through signage. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working. How often do people see garbage left beside trash cans or under signs asking people to take their trash?

“We have to recognize that it’s their responsibility as a dog owner to deal with their dogs. They can’t just leave it. It’s not OK. If they are going to take the time to bring their dog out on the trails, paved or dirt, they need to carry the burden of their poop with them,” says Berry.

While Bermant is responsible when walking in neighborhoods, she was experienced first-hand the poop problem in her own neighborhood often finding dog waste by her mailbox and on her property just feet away from a bear box that invites people to put their plastic bags in the box.

She even went as far as to install a dog poop bag dispenser in front of her house, but hasn’t really helped the situation.

And so goes the continued dilemma of where to put trash and dog bags in Tahoe. With little or no trash receptacles on many trails or paved paths, this leaves dog owners to either carry their stinky bags on their hike or leave them behind to pollute the area. With the summer season approaching and speculation that the Tahoe Sierra will receive even more visitors than last year’s record-breaking summer, it will only compound an already strapped infrastructure.


Dog Bag tips

Be prepared | Always carry biodegradable dog bags. Tie bags to the dog’s leash while on a walk and keep a roll of bags in your car.

Pick it up | To pick up poop, put your hand in the bag and pick up the poop then invert the bag and tie it off.

Pack it out | A lot of trailheads don’t have garbage cans, so take the poop bags home to dispose of. Berry suggests hooking the bag under the back or front windshield wiper of the car. The bag will be secure there until it can be disposed of. Watch a video demo at TheTahoeWeekly.com.