Neighbors search for ways to deal with dog waste at parks

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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LeRoy Haagen Park in Vancouver's Fircrest neighborhood may occasionally act as a doggie commode. But at least it's a tidy one, with people tying up their pooches' poos in bags and throwing them away into waste bins.

It wasn't always that way.

"It seemed very frequent that you'd walk through the park and see the waste," said Fircrest resident Margaret Milem.

There were times when it would pile up, even though the park had a container and plastic bags so people could throw away their doggie doo. The park has multiple access points, Milem said, and clearly not all dog owners were aware of the disposal bin.

She remembers seeing a group of kids, no older than 8, gawking at a fresh pile and shaking their heads. They were disgusted.

Residents of the neighborhood decided they needed to do something about the problem.

So last spring they wrote a grant proposal to the Vancouver Watershed Alliance for money to install four more waste bins at the park. The neighborhood was approved for a $1,320 grant, which was used to install the new bins in November.

The bins seem to be working, said Milem, who's in charge of restocking the bags at the waste bins. Since their installation, LeRoy Haagen Park has gone through about 25 bags a day.

"I haven't noticed any waste in the park since we installed the bins," she said.

On the surface, the issue of dog droppings in parks might appear to be one of mere nuisance. People would rather not step in it. They'd prefer not to see it or, heaven forbid, smell it. And that's why the city has dog waste bins at a dozen of its parks.

But there's also a deeper issue. After all, poop contributes to waterway degradation because it contains fecal coliform, a category of bacteria. While it isn't always harmful, especially in diluted doses, fecal coliform is something for which the Washington Department of Ecology tests.

That, along with neighborhood interest in sprucing up parks, has spurred the city to take note.

Between 2010 and 2011, Vancouver Parks & Recreation collected more than 1,000 pounds of dog droppings from 20 of its special waste bins. Most of them were in or near Burnt Bridge Creek Park.

That's the equivalent of a full-grown polar bear or an adult male sea lion. In other words, it's a lot of poop, and that fact isn't lost on the city, or its residents who are forced to traverse parks as if they were ambling through minefields.

The city collected the waste as a way of taking a snapshot of just how much dog waste was being left behind in parks. The city used the information to receive a $30,000 department of ecology grant. It was used to purchase more waste bins, like the ones in the Fircrest neighborhood, and to investigate whether their placement decreased the amount of poop in parks.

"The stations have always gotten a lot of use. But it's not always the best-case scenario," said Tim Esary, who supervises the city's greenway sensitive lands program "There's a long distance between stations, so some people just drop bags on the ground."

Residents of Fircrest don't want to stop with LeRoy Haagen Park. They have their eyes set on Fir Crest Park.

Neighborhood leaders, including Milem, plan to write another grant proposal this spring. If the neighborhood is successful, the new waste bins could go up by the end of the year.

Eventually, Milem said, she hopes the waste bins cut down on the piles of poop.

For her, it's a no-brainer. As she said, "Even 8-year-olds know it's not the right thing to do."