‘Geyser’ of Effluent Strains Yellowstone’s Budget, Environment
Standing on historic Fishing Bridge, Cathy Cooper of Twin Falls, Idaho, took in the view--North America’s largest lake behind her, the last untamed river in the country below her and majestic mountains of the world’s first national park all around her.
A couple of miles away, hidden along a service road closed to the thousands of cars and recreation vehicles that wind through the park, hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated sewage were being dumped into a meadow.
Ground water entering aged sewage pipes forced the National Park Service, the park’s federal custodian, to dump 6.5 million gallons of treated sewage over a 15-day period last month. The dumping was necessary to prevent catastrophic failure of a system that treats sewage from nearby crowded campgrounds and other visitor facilities, officials said. Last year, raw sewage leaked into Yellowstone Lake and into a creek near Old Faithful in separate incidents.
“I guess if I was close enough to where they put the sewage out, that would affect me,” said Cooper, who was on a four-day camping stay. “But it’s still Yellowstone--that’s why I came here.”
Yellowstone’s exploding geysers, soothing hot springs, majestic mountains, abundant wildlife and roaring rivers lure 30,000 people a day this time of year.
“The park is one of the biggest towns in Wyoming in the summer,” said Tim Hudson, the park’s chief of maintenance.
The strain of 3 million annual visitors who create 270 million gallons of waste and use up to 18 rolls of paper a day per toilet has overwhelmed Yellowstone’s antiquated man-made plumbing system.
On July 2, several thousand gallons of raw sewage spilled into a meadow between Chittenden Bridge and Upper Falls. Park staff members discovered the broken line in an unstable geologic slump that slowly has been giving way. They shut it down, closing restroom facilities in a parking area pending repairs. None of the raw sewage reached any water sources.
“We’re always Band-Aiding,” Hudson said. “Some of those Band-Aids break, and that’s when we have those problems.”
The park service has identified 142 water and sewer problems in the park that would cost about $30 million to repair. The price tag is slightly more than the park’s current total budget.
“It’s probably the best example of how parks are being neglected for their infrastructure and how their infrastructure is falling apart,” said Jerome Uher, spokesman for the private National Parks and Conservation Assn., which this spring ranked Yellowstone among the top 10 most endangered parks.
Three of the park’s six sewage treatment plants need to be replaced. Flush toilets at Norris Geyser Basin, site of the world’s tallest geyser, are inoperable because the Norris treatment plant has been shut down. Another plant is close to failing, and the third, at Old Faithful, is scheduled to be replaced by 2003 at a cost of about $5 million.
“You think of this as a very natural place, then you hear of things like that and you realize it isn’t,” said Dina Brennan of Chippewa Falls, Wis., after traveling 1,055 miles for a five-day camping trip in the park. “You would think this would be a top priority.”
The park service says it has a $5-billion backlog of repairs and maintenance projects at its 378 parks nationwide. Besides sewer problems, Yellowstone needs $300 million in road repairs alone.
Uher said there is plenty of blame to go around in Washington: the park service lacks the management and business acumen in its hierarchy to detail its needs to Congress; Congress is aware of the general problem but there is no single leader to take up the parks’ cause; and the Clinton administration has concentrated on high-profile projects that get headlines while eschewing day-to-day infrastructure problems.
The park service says it is trying to fix the backlog of maintenance problems but doesn’t have enough money to fix them all and maintain a park system that already demands some $1.5 billion in funding.
Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), said Congress has increased the agency’s funding in the last couple of years and it is up to the agency to set priorities on what problems it must fix first.
“It’s a management decision they’re going to have to face up to,” said Thomas, adding that Yellowstone’s sewage problem “certainly is a priority issue.”
Yellowstone’s sewage problems threaten the very environment it was created to preserve, but there are many other parks with safety and environmental problems, said David Barna, the park service’s chief spokesman.
“How are you going to pick between the drums and guns of Gettysburg vs. the bells at Independence Hall vs. Yellowstone?” Barna said. “They are all in need. It’s just very difficult.”
Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group involved in Yellowstone environmental issues, said Congress should make a special appropriation just to fix Yellowstone’s sewage system.
“Yellowstone ought to be looked at as a model of how the park system operates, and yet what we got is raw sewage potentially going into pristine waters. That’s simply not the way to do things,” Clark said.
The park service’s next budget is being worked on by a Congress pulled in many directions on what to do with a predicted budget surplus of $333 billion, excluding Social Security surpluses, over the next decade.
“There’s a lot of disagreement in what projects should receive funding and how much money is going to be spent on parks, even among people who want to see more money for parks,” Uher said.
So far, the amount of money for park operations being discussed would cover employee raises and inflation but not much more, he said.
“No major attempt here to improve the parks,” Uher said.
Yellowstone visitors like Cooper have little patience for the problems plaguing the park.
“I think they should give the money, fix the problem and be done with it,” she said. “Just solve the problem. . . . This is a government-run park. They shouldn’t even have to deal with it.”
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Yellowstone by the Numbers
* Established: World’s first national park, established March 1, 1872, after photographs by William Henry Jackson proved that spectacular geysers described by earlier explorers and mountain men were not tall tales. The name Yellowstone was derived from the high yellow rock cliffs along the upper reaches of the Yellowstone River. Native Americans referred to the river as Mi tsi a da zi, or Rock Yellow River, which French fur trappers translated as Yellow Rock or Yellow Stone.
* Land area: 2.2 million acres--80% forest, 15% meadow and 5% water. Most of the land is in northwest Wyoming, with small portions in Montana and Idaho. Roads and facilities take up less than 3% of the park.
* Elevations: Highest, 11,358 feet at Eagle Peak summit. Lowest, 5,282 feet at Reese Creek.
* Species: 12 species of trees, more than 80 wildflowers, 58 mammals and 290 birds.
* Features: 110 waterfalls of 15 feet or more; Yellowstone Lake, the largest mountain lake in North America; 10,000 geothermal features, including Old Faithful, which erupts about every 79 minutes, and Steamboat, the world’s tallest geyser at 400 feet; Mammoth Hot Springs.
* Visitors: 3,120,830 in 1998.
* Budget: Fiscal year 1999, slightly less than $30 million, including $23.2 million in direct federal government appropriations, $6.3 million from user and entrance fees and $496,000 from concession fees. Forty-two percent of the budget ($12.3 million) goes toward facility operations and maintenance.