Just in time for its biggest weekend of the year, Lake Powell beaches are open after several were shut down in early July because of bacterial contamination caused by human waste.
Water levels are lower now, the bacteria is gone and visitors to the southern Utah resort aren't as frequently using the lake's 1,900 miles of beach as a litter box. Nevertheless, the lake-as-lavatory image has kept some squeamish vacationers away, said Eileen Martinez, a ranger for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area."There was a lot of concern from the concessionaire because of people canceling their houseboat reservations," she said. "When we look back on summer as a whole, there was definitely an economic effect."
Since the closures were announced, Martinez and other park staffers have spent six to 10 minutes on the phone with each caller, trying to convince them the incidents were limited to five miles of beach. Still, she knows many opted to visit Nevada's Lake Mead instead.
This spring's formidable runoff expanded the lake, burying heavily traveled beaches for the first time in 10 years. The high waters unleashed waste deposited on the beaches, which led to high counts of fecal coliform bacteria in some lake water tests conducted weekly at 54 sites.
In early August, the lake topped out at 3,694 feet above sea level, just six feet shy of a "full pool" distinction, Martinez said. The water hasn't been this high since the mid-1980s.
"We used this incident to raise people's awareness about the problems they cause if they don't dispose of waste properly," Martinez said. "If it continues in the future, it'll happen again."
The incident spawned a joint educational project between the National Parks Service and ARAMARK Leisure Services Inc., sole contract concessionaire for the lake on the Arizona-Utah border.
During recent weeks, Martinez said hundreds of volunteers flagged down boaters on the lake, vacationers on the docks, tourists waiting to load their watercraft and sunbathers on the beaches in a campaign to educate people about appropriate waste disposal.
"We're getting people to realize we have a moving water line," said Bob Seney, general manager of the Wahweap Lodge, operated by ARAMARK.
The park service is trying to do its part for more convenient waste disposal - it's experimenting with a pumpout station for recreational vehicles at Lone Rock Beach and is building new restroom facilities throughout the Wahweap area at the lake's south end.
But when a relaxed vacation mindset grows into laziness, not even convenience matters, she said. "We look at areas like Lone Rock and Hobe Cat where there are portable (toilets) all over and people still don't use them."
People also may be depositing waste inappropriately while trying to follow guidelines in outdoorsy publications like Sierra Club and Backpacker magazines. For example, many people believe they need to go 100 feet from the water, but don't realize it's actually 100 feet above the highest water line, Martinez said.
"It does get a little confusing," she said.
Bottom line, she said, tourists need to be more cautious. "Even if it's a coffee can with cat litter in it. . . ."
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