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Traveler Special Report: Antiquated Wastewater, Sewer Facilities Go Wanting In National Parks

The Thorofare Outhouse, Yellowstone National Park/Robert Pahre

Technology in wastewater treatment systems has come a long way from the basic outhouse, but many of the National Park System's existing treatment and sewer systems are in need of significant repairs/Robert Pahre photo of the Thorofare outhouse in Yellowstone National Park

“Some of the wilderness, scenery, and natural spectacles in which the public takes the greatest pride are threatened with disfigurement and even destruction.” -- Bernard DeVoto

Visitors to our national parks revel in the scenery, wildlife, and history that is our heritage. They hike and bike, swim and boat, take photographs and make memories. Along the way, they have some basic needs. Even though these parks often contain primitive and wilderness settings, visitors need roads, parking lots, hotels, campgrounds, and trails. And power lines and culinary and wastewater systems.

It’s a lot of effort, work, and money to make sure these amenities are in place. But, sometimes due to funding shortfalls these facilities cannot meet all of their needs. That’s a difficult line to walk for park officials: build enough facilities to meet the need while maintaining the character and environment of these protected places.

Keeping up with infrastructure faces two challenges. First, is the actual aging of old facilities, sometimes decades old. Second is the growing visitation to the parks. Facilities need to be updated, with new technology, capacity, and more efficiency.

Park planners must also provide capacity for one of the most basic of human needs: a place to go to the bathroom. And nothing gets a visitor’s attention more than a closed restroom.

Last year nearly 331 million people visited the national parks, and the numbers continue to grow. While the demand for services increases, funding streams however are flat or diminishing. According to the Congressional Research Service, from 2007 to 2016 the backlog of unfunded park maintenance grew by more than $1.7 billion. Today, the entire backlog runs around $12 billion, with road projects taking well over half of that amount; wastewater facilities account for about 20 percent of the total.

The National Park Service manages 1,887 wastewater systems across the park system, and many are in need of maintenance and upgrades. According to the Park Service, at the end of 2017 there was $270.6 million in deferred maintenance needs for wastewater systems, and of that $159.4 million was considered "critical or serious."

Treatment systems are varied. There is no “one size fits all” model. They include septic tank-leach field facilities (the most prevalent). But there are also lagoons, sand filters, activated sludge package plant, batch reactors and evapotranspiration beds. The Park Service also must plan, build, and maintain vault, composting, and electric incineration toilets, as well as the primitive pit privies.

So how can we keep up with the aging infrastructure and increased demand for services with reduced funding? That’s the issue park officials and superintendents contend with every single day, and they’d rather maintain and fix a system rather than address a catastrophic failure.

Effigy Mounds NM Visitor Center/NPS

The wastewater system serving the visitor center at Effigy Mounds National Monument broke down in 2017, and work is progressing to build a new one/NPS

One wastewater system being rebuilt is in Effigy Mounds National Monument along the Mississippi River in Iowa. While not inundated with visitors, today about 67,000 people come to the park. By this fall they’ll have a new and improved place to “go.”

Jim Nepstad, the park’s superintendent since 2011, describes the issues surrounding a collapsed line leading out of their waste holding tank. “Around 2016 we had the first indications that our system was falling apart. We crippled along for about a year, and, then, in 2017 it gave up the ghost.”

The original system was built in 1959, when visitation was around 1,000 people a year. When the line failed last year they had to close the visitors center restroom and set up a line of five portable toilets in the parking lot.

“If we didn’t replace the system we would have been pumping out the holding tank every other day,” said Superintendent Nepstad, which is not a long-term viable solution. “We couldn’t defer (a new system) for another year.”

Fortunately they had funding in place to repair the system, and the project is now in the contract stage. But it’s not as simple as marking off some section of turf to install the new system, since great care must be taken with any excavations to avoid disturbing any archaeological items. And there might be many, as Effigy Mounds protects Native American burial mounds.

“We’ve had conversations with tribal partners and state historic preservation office,” the superintendent added. “We hope to be in construction this summer.”

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has also been fortunate this year. The park was able to secure funding for its Elkmont wastewater system.

“We’re currently finishing the design process,” said Alan Sumeriski, chief of facilities management for the park. “It’s categorized as in poor condition. It is 50-plus years old, and the components have exceeded service life.”

Elkmont is a campground of 220 units, so growth in visitation isn’t an issue, but old equipment is. When the project is complete, it will leave the list of deferred maintenance projects, but there will still be seven projects in the park on the serious list.

Composting toilet at Shoshone Lake, Yellowstone National Park/Kurt Repanshek

Maintaining composting toilets, such as this one at Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone National Park, falls under the duty of the National Park System/Kurt Repanshek file

Sumeriski noted that the last time a lot of attention was paid to park infrastructure was during the Mission 66 program that ran from 1956 to 1966 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service with infrastructure upgrades across the system.

“There was further development; campgrounds and visitors centers went in,” he said, describing how the work updated many of the park’s historic structures that were built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. 

But what happens when a system fails or is need of repair or expansion, and funding is not in place? That is the situation in Yosemite National Park in California. Yosemite is listed as one of the top three parks on the list of deferred maintenance, with a total of around $582 million in backlogged projects, and wastewater systems are high on the park’s budget requests.

The El Portal Wastewater system, which serves the entire Yosemite Valley itself, needs more than $45 million in upgrades and repairs. Up in the high country, the Tuolumne Meadows Wastewater Treatment System is looking for a little less than $11 million. And there are other systems at White Wolf, Crane Flat, Glacier Point and Vogelsang. Yosemite’s comfort stations, i.e. restrooms and outhouses, alone need about $4.5 million in maintenance and upgrades.

But perhaps the highest priority has been the facilities in the Wawona area of the park, on Yosemite’s southern border. More than 1.3 million visitors tour the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees, stay in the historic Big Trees Lodge, or camp out under the trees. The campground accommodates 582 per night, all relying on a wastewater system up to 60 years old.

Since the system is very close to the South Fork of the Merced Wild and Scenic River, there is a “potential for failure and water contamination, if not completed,” says the park’s budget documentation. Repairs involve three lift stations and replacing six saturated and failing leach fields with a new 1.6-mile pipeline to the main Wawona system. The project cost estimate is $3,971,000. This will be funded through the Recreation Fee Park Revenue, said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. 

But the Wawona Treatment Plant itself is critical to visitor services. In 2008 there were two large spills due to broken spray field piping, and discharge exceeded the daily permitted flow that summer 81 times. The plant also is undersized to meet the growing demand, so the waste is currently trucked twice a day to the El Portal Plant, a 90-mile round trip, during the summer until the system is repaired.

Campground restrooms at Wawona, Yosemite National Park/NPS

Part of the plan for updating the Wawona Treatment Plant includes tying in six restrooms in the nearby campground to the system/NPS

The cost of upgrading this plant is estimated at $24,479,000 and was near the top of the deferred maintenance list. With its high visibility, it is now funded.

“The president’s budget priority added $266 million for projects,” said Gediman, “and it called out Wawona Treatment Plant specifically. We now need to do the environmental assessment to get it going.

“In the big picture, though,” added Gediman, “our water quality is incredibly important, with 15-20 percent of our budget money spent on culinary and wastewater systems.”

Meanwhile, the El Portal upgrades still need funding, and the White Wolf Campground’s opening has been delayed until mid-July due to breaches in its wastewater system.

In America’s first national park – Yellowstone – the issues are similar, with about $663 million in deferred maintenance requests. In 1904 only 13,727 people visited this wildlife and geyser haven. Last year it topped 4 million visitors. Keeping up with today’s numbers keeps everyone busy. This year Yellowstone will spend more than $28,000 on hand sanitizer and $12,000 on bathroom tissue. The park has 153 vault toilets, and two pumper trucks are constantly on the road servicing them. Half-a-million dollars was spent last year on custodial work in Yellowstone’s 1,500 buildings. It’s a huge place, and a huge job. The park’s deferred wastewater upgrade and maintenance list, in current replacement value, tops $113 million.

While national park friends groups sometimes help with funding these needs, sewer systems and treatment plants are not sexy, and finding outside donors to pay for their needs isn't easy.

Look just about anywhere in the park system and you’ll find wastewater needs that have been put off and put off, sometimes in favor of projects that might not be viewed as critical. 

At Glacier National Park, which has $153.8 million in deferred maintenance needs, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke earlier this year provided $12 million from an extra $138 million Congress gave him to "address only longstanding deferred maintenance and major construction related requirements of the Service" to rebuild the Sperry Chalet that burned last year. But he didn't send the park any additional funds to tackle the park’s deferred maintenance, which includes ailing Mission 66-era sewer and wastewater projects at the Lake McDonald, Rising Sun, and Swiftcurrent lodges.

Keeping up with current visitors is one thing, but planning for the increase is what keeps park planners and superintendents up at night. Factor in old equipment that has reached its service life, and the issue seems almost overwhelming. Not addressing the needs is not an option, but funding those needs is difficult. But, the bottom line is: if you invite people to the parks, you’ve got to give them a place to go.   

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Good article on this important issue. Thank you for covering this one.  It is interesting that all of these parks (except Effigy) has dedicated a new facility/VC in recent memory.  So even though these systems have needed replacement more ribbon cutting facilities were a greater priority. But, the past is the past. Moving forward I think the NPs should think about trying to operate these things in a different manner. Maybe even partner with an adjacent community or contract out the maintenance. The systems seem much more complex than before and I would hate to see the same problem in another decade or two.

But in at least some places, adjacent communities are also being overwhelmed.  Here's an article recounting how Moab had to refuse to accept sewage from Arches and Canyonlands' Island in the Sky.

This article is nearly two years old, but I don't think anything has changed.

It's also not just sewage:


Looks like the Thorofare outhouse could be eligible for the National Register and there's a certain beauty in that!

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