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June 27, 2022

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Poop Smart Clark program aims to reduce fecal bacteria in Clark County’s waterways

Clark Conservation District project takes aim at contamination from livestock, people and pets

By , Columbian staff writer
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Clark Conservation District hopes to help folks in Clark County "poop smarter" with its new outreach program and website, Poop Smart Clark, www.poopsmartclark.org. The goal is to reduce fecal bacteria in local waterways like Brezee Creek, above, and the East Fork of the Lewis River.
Clark Conservation District hopes to help folks in Clark County "poop smarter" with its new outreach program and website, Poop Smart Clark, www.poopsmartclark.org. The goal is to reduce fecal bacteria in local waterways like Brezee Creek, above, and the East Fork of the Lewis River. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Clark Conservation District loves bathroom humor.

This local agency has really gone down the toilet. Its new program, Poop Smart Clark, offers a poop-ton of information about how to properly dispose of human and animal waste. From livestock to pets to pooping in the woods, the program aims to keep No. 2 from contaminating water.

The campaign’s goal is to reduce fecal bacteria in Clark County’s waterways, said Zorah Oppenheimer, manager of Clark Conservation District, a nonregulatory, nonprofit government agency that helps conserve natural resources. The district hopes to get people thinking about the serious problems created by poop in water — and to let people know that help is available to manage all that, er, output.

The program seeks to curb contamination from livestock, people and pets.

Pet poop, it turns out, is an especially messy issue in the East Fork of the Lewis River. In 2020, testing by Clark County’s public works department found the river to have high levels of fecal bacteria from dogs. It might seem remarkable that the origins of waterborne microbes can be detected with such accuracy, but that is indeed the case, Oppenheimer said.

“There are certain kinds of bacteria that are found in different species’ intestines, and that comes out in their poop. By DNA testing the bacteria, (experts) can determine if the bacteria is from a human, a cow, a dog or a horse and what the concentration of that bacteria is, or how much poop is in the water,” Oppenheimer said. “Surprisingly, we found in the East Fork a huge need as related to dog poop, which I don’t think anyone was guessing or anticipating. There’s also human and livestock poop, but a huge amount was dog.”

That’s why the program’s initial push will be in watersheds around La Center that feed into the East Fork. Starting next month, residents who live near Brezee, Jenny and McCormick creeks and Rock Creek North can fill out a survey to help, well, flush out local opinions about the matter. Door-to-door outreach will start in June.

Oppenheimer said community feedback will help determine how to use the $2.4 million in grants awarded by the Washington State Department of Ecology, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Washington State Conservation Commission. Next year, the conservation district will focus on similar pollution issues around Lacamas Lake.

“This is the single largest effort to clean up bacteria-based water quality in Clark County,” Oppenheimer said. “It’s definitely the largest amount of money we’ve had available for livestock best management practices.”

Landowners readily grasp why it’s important to manage livestock waste or maintain septic tanks. Most campers and hikers understand that pooping on trails or leaving loaded diapers behind is disgusting and unsanitary. And most dog owners conscientiously bag up doody in urban areas.

Oppenheimer said it’s much more challenging to convey why dog dookie should be picked up in rural areas, because people think of pet poop as natural and biodegradable. Why is it bad when dogs leave a deposit deep in the forest or on their owners’ property? Because on a microbial level, dog poop is similar enough to human poop that “it’s like raw sewage,” Oppenheimer said.

“The intent is to help people understand that dog poop isn’t just an aesthetic issue,” Oppenheimer said. “This is harming our creeks. It’s creating unsafe water.”

Horse, sheep and goat poop can be safely composted for gardens, but not dog, cat, human and pig poop, Oppenheimer said.

Fecal bacteria in our waterways may be no joke, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be funny. The program’s website, www.poopsmartclark.org, displays a healthy sense of humor, with a smiling, poo-shaped logo and plenty of poopy cartoons. The lighthearted approach on a government website is both disarming and engaging. This is by design, said Oppenheimer — who notes that her own humor is “on the lowbrow side” — because if people can laugh about something, they’re more likely to remember it.

Using humor to make a point about poop is a strategy that’s already proven successful in Skagit County, where Washington’s first Poop Smart program was launched a few years ago. With permission, Clark Conservation District built on Skagit County’s foundation, favoring yuks and guffaws over policy talk and government lingo. (Case in point: Poop Smart Clark declares itself to be “the No. 1 resource for No. 2.”)

Oppenheimer said the goal of the program isn’t to make folks feel called out for polluting waterways but to help them find better ways to, ahem, eliminate the negative. This aligns with the agency’s mission, which is not to regulate or enforce policies but rather to connect county residents with information, practical support and, in some cases, financial assistance.

“We work for farmers. We work for landowners,” Oppenheimer said. “The reason that conservation districts are trusted nationwide is that a landowner or resident can invite a district staff member out to their property without fear of any kind of regulatory action.”

Visitors to the website will get information about how septic systems work and how to maintain them, how to find septic inspectors and links to sign up for a class that teaches property owners how to inspect their own tanks. Landowners can request on-site expert advice in managing their acreage, including building manure sheds and constructing fencing to keep livestock from leaving meadow muffins near streams or ponds.

If you’re curious about the best way to answer nature’s urgent call while enjoying the great outdoors, Poop Smart Clark also provides information about portable toilets and tips on how to “poop like a pro.”

Oppenheimer said that some financial assistance programs — especially anything to do with livestock or farm management — are available countywide, while some are only available in geographically specific areas of Clark County. In areas around the aforementioned creeks, “reimbursements are available for septic inspection, pumping and minor repairs and we have a small amount of money for a few large septic repairs or replacements,” Oppenheimer said.

If you have more questions, visit poopsmartclark.org or call Clark Conversation District at 360-859-4780.

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