The poop scoop

Earth Day is upon us, and while everyone loves to talk about global problems, there are issues closer to home


There. It’s said. Now can we just get beyond the junior high fart jokes and scatological heebie jeebies to have a serious discussion about a natural material that impacts our lives daily, but rarely gets thought—let alone talked—about?

Think about it now. The average human excretes two pounds a day. There were 6.8 billion people on Earth last week, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There are 1.5 billion cattle in the world, according to the PBS show Nature. The average cow poops 65 pounds per day (although some sources show dairy cows averaging more like 120 pounds daily). Then there are the horses, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, lions and tigers and … well, you know who does what in the woods. This list is as long as creation, and as deep as Lake Tahoe.

Poop’s on the sidewalks where we walk; it’s in the parks where we play; it’s in the water where we swim; it’s everywhere. And depending on where you find it, it’s either a hazard or a benefit. And everywhere it’s found, somebody has to deal with it.

Human poop can cause diseases like typhoid fever, wound infection and diarrhea. Some sources say goose poop can contain parasites like cryptosporidium, giardia, coliform and campylobacter. Dog poop carries its own slew of pathogens—tapeworm, E. coli, roundworm, and a Mulligan stew of diseases that can pass to the next dog, like parvo. Cow poop can be an enormous hazard, like in 1998 when the then 5,000-cow Ponderosa Dairy in Armagosa, Nev., dumped 1.7 million gallons that eventually drifted into a California river. Its parent company, Rockview Farms, paid more than $250,000 in fines. There are approximately 40 dairy farms in Nevada, ranging in size from 150-9,000 animals.

In a famous standup riff, George Carlin said, “You don’t take a shit, you leave it.” Carlin was about half right, because often when someone leaves one, someone else must take it and put it in an environmentally neutral place.

“For the most part, nobody regulates livestock poop,” said Ann Louhela, of Western Nevada College, “unless you want to try to sell it or something. On the small farms, the organic farms, they age it, and spread it. It’s part of that whole organic cycle. A lot of city people find out who’s got horses and stuff, and they go out and pick up manure for their gardens. Some of it may go for compost.”

That’s mostly true in the small ranches. But there are the big agri-businesses, including dairy farms, that are monitored by the government, specifically the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Water Pollution Control.

“We permit large livestock operations,” said Jon Palm, chief of the water pollution control bureau. “The program has a name; it’s called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, CAFO. The federal EPA has regulations that the states must implement regarding the handling of the waste material at a large-animal feeding operation. It applies to all animals, but it has to be above a certain number. For cattle, it’s a thousand. For other animals, it’s different because they have different waste loading.”

“You just can’t let the stuff go into the groundwater and then the residential drinking supply. This material has to be handled and managed so it does not pollute the groundwater.”

The bureau chief says that there are several ways of dealing with the poop. The most common method is mechanically spreading the manure over a large area, since the less concentrated poop degrades before it can poison the ground water. The poop purveyor has to have a crop growing that will uptake the nutrients, specifically, the nitrogen. Alfalfa, hay and pasture, for example, each require a certain number of pounds of nitrogen to grow per acre. The agency does not allow the excrement to be spread on human food crops, like corn.

“A lot of places take the raw manure and compost it, particularly in the Midwest, and then they put it in bags and sell it to the public, if you can imagine that,” Palm said, about half sardonically.

Another up-and-coming technique is to put the material in a large reaction vessel called an “anaerobic digester,” which encourages and then removes the methane.

“We’re seeing more and more of that, but it’s a large capital cost to build the thing, and all the permitting,” he said. “It’s becoming more popular in other parts of the country and it supplies enough electricity to at least run the operation—the dairy or the feed lot.”

And methane is a greenhouse gas, so anything prevented from entering the atmosphere is good for the planet. “Yes, absolutely,” said the cordial Palm.

This farmland in the east county is watered by effluent from the Reno-Sparks sewer plant.

Photo By Dennis Myers

It’s a different story for the small “sustainable” rancher, though. Norris Albaugh of Albaugh Ranch near Fallon might be considered one of those small operators, although he won’t say how many cattle he has: “That’s like asking me how much money I have in the bank.” The Albaugh family has been raising Native Purebred Shorthorn cattle since 1946.

“Most of our manure is spread by the cattle or sheep out in the fields,” said Albaugh. In other words, Albaugh’s animals broadcast their manure the old fashioned way, they poop it. “It’s used as fertilizer. It’s been several years since we bought any commercial fertilizer. As the animals harvest the crop, it goes right back out on the fields. Manure in our operation is a complete asset. There’s really no liability with manure.”

Waste not

In what is presumably a reflection of discomfort with human waste, a facility in the Truckee Meadows has had several names in the last half century. It was once known as the Sewer Plant, later as the Sewage Treatment Plant, and still later as the Wastewater Treatment Plant. Today it is called the Water Reclamation Facility (WRF). Just to tie everything together neatly, the plant address is 8500 Clean Water Way. A rose by any other name, and all that, though roses seldom come to mind at the site

Starlin Jones, who operates the plant/facility, belongs to the Water Environment Federation, which used to be called the Water Pollution Control Federation. He frequently makes reference to biosolids, the non-liquid materials the community sends to the plant. “I still want to call it sludge,” he said, referring to the previous commonly used term.

This is an operation with a high consciousness of public relations. “We have bad press as it is,” Jones said.

In the early days of white settlement of the valley, the Truckee River was effectively the sewer plant, no doubt to the dismay of downstream Native Americans. Today, the WRF website reads, “In the 1940s, the Truckee River began to lose its ability to service the community as a natural reclamation source.” In fact, it probably began long before that. Residents of the Truckee Meadows became outraged at upstream pollutants, such as pulp wastes from lumber companies like the Floriston Pulp and Paper Company and the Crown Willamette Paper Company, but the locals were blasé about the downstream consequences of their own addition to river pollution. For a long time, the municipalities did about as much as federal and state laws required them to do to keep the river clean and stopped there.

As the years passed, those regulations became tougher, a process that accelerated with the rise of the modern environmental movement in the late 1960s. The plant had to start paying attention to more and more aspects of the ecology, to the point that it is now part of the governing ethic of the sewer plant.

Measures were adopted to try to help reestablish declining fish populations and protect species like the Lahonton cutthroat trout and the cui-ui. Along the way, plant operators learned to do other green things, as well.

What comes out of the plant into the river is liquid, but what enters the plant is only partially liquid. So what happens to the solids?

“What we do is they are settled out and pumped to a digester,” Jones said. “The digester acts just like our stomach. We heat it up to around 98 degrees Fahrenheit, and we digest our biosolids. Once the biosolids are digested, then we use centrifuges to dewater it. These centrifuges are set at like 180 gallons a minute, and we produce around 170 tons of biosolids—dry tons of biosolids a day, and it’s hauled off to the landfill.”

Previously biosolids were taken to Gerlach and used for fertilizer or whatever, but the growing consciousness of environmentalism kicked in.

“We actually used to haul it out to Gerlach, and they would use it for land application, but we decided that—which is more green, you know, spending 90,000 gallons in fossil fuel and polluting the air or putting it to the landfill and not polluting the air so much? So, you know, there’s a trade-off there.”

And as the technology advanced, other green techniques were found. The digesters produce methane gas, which is captured and used to fuel co-generation units that produce electricity which, in turn, is used to heat the digesters.

Sewer officials have other, similar ambitions. “We use about 3.2 megawatts every day. We’d like to get completely off the [electric] grid. So any way we can shave off of that—solar, wind—would be good,” Jones said. But that will cost money, and in a recession that is not easy to come by. (Unusual economic indicator: The plant normally handles 32 million gallons a day, but during the recession that has dropped to 27 million. The plant capacity is 44 million.)

As for the liquids, “You have a series of physical treatments, biological treatment. … By the time it leaves the plant, it looks like a glass of water you can drink.”

Starlin Jones shows the clarity of water about to leave the sewer plant for the Truckee River.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Really? Well, yes—it looks like a glass of water you can drink. That’s not quite the same thing as saying you can drink it, even though it goes into the river.

‘It’s treated in such a way where you can reuse it on, not food crops, but, like golf courses and parks and stuff like that,” Jones said. “But, no, I personally wouldn’t drink it myself.”

“You wouldn’t want to use it on food crops under the EPA regulations, but we actually irrigate Rosewood Lakes Golf Course, Wildcreek Golf Course, Wingfield Springs … We also irrigate Reed High School’s football field and several parks in Sparks and all the UNR farms out there that they’re talking about shutting down actually, they’re alfalfa crops which we use for livestock, we irrigate all that, too.”

A sewer plant at Round Hill has created a lake filled with effluent, but it is not used for drinking water, though fishing is allowed.

But if the water is not supposed to be used on crops, why is it going into the river, with farming areas using the river water at Fernley and Fallon? Dilution is the remedy.

“It’s mixed in with the Truckee River, though, which means that it’s so diluted,” Jones said.

Perhaps. But there are concerns about the effect of pharmaceutical drugs on the water supply, and those are bare traces compared to the steady entry of sewer plant output into rivers.

Northern Nevadans had a demonstration of this factor years ago, when a reporter at KTVN, Larry Wissbeck, drew some water from Truckee River Dam at Tahoe City, where the lake’s water begins its journey in the Truckee. He also took a sample from the Truckee just before it reached Reno, and another sample downstream from Reno at Lockwood. He then did a story about the clarity of the water at all three points.

After the story ran, for some reason no one threw the samples away. They sat on a bookcase in the newsroom for several weeks. As time passed, something happened. The first sample of water stayed pretty clear. The second sample, from upstream of Reno, had some green matter growing in the bottom of the jar. And the Lockwood sample was a thriving jungle of green matter.

Wissbeck got a follow-up story, and people downstream from Reno probably got a little queasy.

We’re Number 2!

Have you seen that book Everyone Poops? It’s a children’s picture book that teaches kids that all animals and all people poop, and it’s just part of normal life. Elephants poop. Mice poop. Movie stars poop. Senators poop. Even the President of the United States must sometimes take a poo. Some people do it rarely and daintily. Others of us are three-times-a-day regular and take pride in our long, full-bodied, elegant poops that twirl about the bowl like the flames of a fire dancer, or swirl like chocolate soft serve.

To paraphrase R.E.M., “Everybody poops … sometimes. So hold on!”

“We’ve got a lot of material for your story,” said Jimmy Martin, the co-owner and manager of Sierra Safari Zoo north of Reno. The “material” he’s talking about is the nearly 200 cubic yards of manure lovingly manufactured every month by the zoo’s nearly 200 animals—everything from lions and tigers to baboons and camels.

The zookeepers take some of this manure—particularly the golden stuff from deer, goats, antelope and other hoofed animals—and pile it along with uneaten feed and excess bedding materials like straw. This pile is watered and decomposed to sell as organic compost to farmers. The heat generated by the decomposing poop pile is then transferred by a series of water hoses to help heat the baboon house in the winter.

That’s right, the giant, steaming pile of poop keeps the baboons warm.

Jimmy Martin at Sierra Safari Zoo’s compost heap.


What animal generates the grossest poop?

“The big cats are gross, because they’re carnivorous.” said Sierra Safari assistant manager Jane Kisiel. “But really it’s a toss-up between the big cats and the monkeys. I’m not sure why the monkeys are so gross, but they are.”

Because it’s sort of like human poop?

“Maybe. I hadn’t thought of it that way. … But really it’s a matter of opinion. There are people who work here who are cat people, and they don’t mind the smell of the big cat poo.”

“The foxes have a very strong odor,” said Diana Hiibel of Animal Ark, a wildlife sanctuary that’s also north of Reno. “But it’s really the local animals that create the worst smells—the spotted skunk and the bushy-tailed woodrats.”

The folks at places like Sierra Safari and Animal Ark have to pay close attention to their animals’ droppings.

“Examining the stool of our animals is a way to monitor their health,” said Hiibel. “We want to make sure there’s a healthy, solid stool, with no diarrhea or parasites.”

Strong poop equals a strong animal. A healthy beast has stool so sturdy you can sit on it.

One company that’s found a great use for poop is Elephant Poo Poo Paper, which sells notebooks, photo albums, stationary and other paper products made from recycled elephant dung. Their products, which actually smell pretty good, are available locally in Reno at Paper Moon, 550 W. Plumb Lane, 827-9933.

Many local residents have had an otherwise pleasant visit to a local park marred by an unexpected step into green-and-white gunk. It’s goose poop, and it seems especially gross because it looks like the droppings of an animal that eats nothing but human snot.

“There’s a lot of it in the winter,” said Jeff Mann, parks manager for the city of Reno. Mann says that there are no health problems or concerns with the goose poop, but he acknowledges that it’s unpleasant.

“It’s unsightly, but it breaks down pretty quickly once we start watering,” he said. Apparently, that all-snot diet turns quickly to fertilizer.

Of course, goose poop is a walk in the park compared to the nostril-tickling nastiness generated by man’s best friend.

“Dog poop is a year-round problem,” said Mann. “It’s not the dogs, it’s the owners.”

Dog walkers who visit local parks are required to clean up after their pets. And unfortunately, due to recent budget reductions, the city is no longer stocking the doggie bag stations, except at parks with a private sponsorship. Mann says that $100 can sponsor a park for a year and keep it supplied with doggie bags for quick-and-easy poop clean-up. Anyone interested in sponsoring a park can call the Reno parks department at 324-2270.

Any other animals that have caused excrement related problems in local parks?

“Well, humans, unfortunately,” said Mann.

It seems that not everyone has learned how to sit, or squat, and aim. Or even which room is the appropriate place to do their business. Pooping, like some other big events, say, running a marathon, requires some training.