Pet waste is turning streams into sewers

What smells bad, sticks to shoes and piles up at a rate of 20 tons per day — and not just during election years?

Ask Snohomish County dog owners.

The county’s estimated 126,000 dogs produce enough poop to rival a city of 32,000 people.

“This is essentially the equivalent of the human waste of the city of Lynnwood or Bothell dumped in back yards every day,” said Kathy Thornburgh, a county water and habitat sciences supervisor.

It’s a big problem that county officials have spent four years studying. Clean water experts say streams are suffering whenever a dog’s business isn’t cleaned up, and the county is wrapping up a $475,000 campaign on how to solve the problem.

So far, officials spent some of the money trying to block animal waste from running into county streams.

Other money is being spent on education and on study and experimentation to find the right way to persuade homeowners with pets to “scoop the poop, bag it and put it in the trash.”

Last week, the county approved a final $15,000 contract for a phone survey to find out if dog owners are remembering the county’s message.

If people are changing their ways, “we’ll start to see declines in bacteria contamination in streams. That’s the point of all this,” said Dave Ward, a county watershed expert.

It’s an important topic. It’s also one in which county government must tread carefully, Ward said. So clean water specialists asked a group of people to help choose the best euphemisms for droppings, to plop their message on official posters and mailings.

Out of a hundred possibilities, they laughed too much at “land mines,” “poodle patties” and “jobbers,” which didn’t seem appropriate for serious government communications.

“Manure” was too agricultural, “Tootsie Rolls” would rile copyright lawyers, and “stool” and “fecal” matter were too medical, too technical.

“We ended up with ‘poop,’” Ward said. “It was a funny exercise. We’re just trying to use language that people are comfortable with so the message doesn’t get tuned out.”

Ward drafted his own dogs, Tess and Tucker, for a series of posters to bring a little humor to the effort.

Admittedly, it’s a topic that brings out the 6-year-old in everyone, Ward said. Even so, human health and the environment are threatened by the disease-carrying pathogens in dog waste.

“There’s a variety of pathogens that are harmful to humans and pets, and are harmful in streams,” Thornburgh said. Fecal coliform bacteria in streams “is just one of a whole suite of pathogens getting into the water, and one indicator.”

If ingested, fecal coliform and other bacteria found in pet waste can make people sick, leading to breathing problems, diarrhea, blindness and worse.

“We want to send the message that dog waste isn’t safer than any other kind of waste,” she added.

Every creek and stream from Marysville to the King County line fails water quality standards due to fecal coliform bacteria found in pet waste, Thornburgh said.

Handing out brochures wasn’t enough, so the county used marketing techniques and focus groups to test its messages.

They studied techniques across the country and Canada, Europe and Australia, and learned most programs focused on dog poop on public property. Waste in back yards represents about 85 percent of the problem, Ward said.

Many owners already bag pet waste and put it in the garbage, but some worry it’s not allowed.

Thornburgh wants to set the record straight: Dog poop belongs in a bag in the garbage.

Garbage haulers said adding tons of dog poop to their rounds would barely be noticed, unless people put out whole cans of the stuff, Ward said.

Pathogens in dog poop don’t break down when buried or composted.

Flushing would work, except “bringing in wet, soggy fuzzy dog turds from the outside in December and flushing it down the toilet was really, really offensive to people,” Ward said.

More than 100 agencies saw Snohomish County’s initial successes and are interested in or are already using some of the 25 clever health posters here, Ward said. The state Department of Ecology is asking for training in the techniques used, and the Environmental Protection Agency has invited the county to speak to small cities and agencies.

Everything chants the mantra: “Scoop the poop, bag it and put it in the trash.”

With funding, the posters might be launched in a countywide effort.

State officials are piling praise on the county for blazing new territory.

“This was a model for the way we like to see things done,” said Ralph Svrjcek, state Department of Ecology water cleanup specialist.

The County Council approved the final phone survey about pet waste. County Councilman Mike Cooper, attending his first meeting since elected, chuckled and shook his head at the topic.

“Welcome to county government,” County Council Chairman Dave Somers said.

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or jswitzer@heraldnet.com.

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