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Middle Fork

Bob and Chris Anderson float down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area.

RIGGINS — Last summer, Gem Stop service station officials notified the Salmon River Ranger District that they were going to shut down the SCAT machine here—a highly specialized portable toilet-cleaning machine—and the Forest Service would need to find a new location.

And then in December, even worse news came when Riggins officials told the agency the city would no longer take the waste stream from the SCAT machine because it wasn’t compatible with its sewer system. Too many foreign objects like handy wipes, beer cans, charcoal and disposable diapers were clogging the system.

So more than 10,000 private and commercial floaters who will be rafting the main Salmon River through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area this summer will have to find an alternative way to dispose of human waste in their portable toilets. This also will affect southbound boaters coming off Hells Canyon river trips at Pittsburg Landing, and those who do the lower Salmon River and then hire a jet boat to shuttle them up the Snake River to Pittsburg Landing.

It’s a potentially stinky situation without an easy solution for floaters who have the typical primitive rocket box toilet systems or a 5-gallon bucket toilet system, both of which were designed to work in a SCAT machine for cleanout after a weeklong trip in paradise.

“We just have to tell people that we don’t have an option for them this year,” said Jeremy Harris with the Salmon River Ranger District. “We are getting ready to put out a press release and send an email to all of the people who drew a permit to run the main Salmon this year and let them know they’ll be on their own to dispose of their human waste.”

“This is a big deal,” said Eric Weiseth, managing partner of Orange Torpedo Trips, which does day trips and multiday trips on the Salmon River. “This is going to be a really, really tough deal for the boating community. We could see people dumping their waste in pit toilets or throwing it in a dumpster in Riggins, where it’s going to fester in 115-degree heat. It could be really nasty.”

“We have to have someplace to dump our (expletive),” added Brent Estep, owner of Mackay Wilderness River Trips, which does main Salmon trips all summer long. “We have to put pressure on the Forest Service to solve this situation.”

Indeed, it was the Forest Service that instituted rules in the late 1980s that required floaters to pack out their human waste. The agency maintained pit toilets at campsites along the main Salmon and Middle Fork Salmon rivers for a number of years. Those were phased out and replaced with pack-it-out regulations because of concerns about the potential of fecal material or E. coli bacteria bleeding into the pristine rivers.

SCAT machines were placed in Riggins, on the Salmon River Road near North Fork, Idaho, and in Asotin. The Riggins location serves rafters who float the main Salmon and Snake River in Hells Canyon. The North Fork machine is used by Middle Fork floaters, and the Asotin machine is used by those who come off the lower Salmon River or the Snake River.

This system has worked well for more than 20 years until the Forest Service encountered the SCAT shutdown in Riggins. Now the city of Riggins, which calls itself the “Whitewater Capital of Idaho,” has found itself in a dicey situation where it can’t accommodate an essential part of a float party’s experience—dumping waste in a sanitary manner at the conclusion of a trip.

Riggins Mayor Glenna McClure said the Forest Service has not moved quickly to develop a new location and new system for disposing of human waste, and she worries that her town could become a dumping ground.

“The Forest Service has dropped the ball on it,” she said.

But with the city of Riggins telling the Forest Service that it can’t send the waste to the city’s wastewater treatment facility, they have put the agency and river floaters in a tough spot, too. Forest Service officials are looking at relocating the human-waste dump site to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area property near Riggins. They also plan to buy a new SCAT machine that will require the waste to be pumped out by a truck and taken to a wastewater facility.

“We’re hoping to have a solution for 2019,” Harris said.

In the meantime, floaters should check into portable toilet systems that are equipped with a 3-inch hose that would allow them to dispose of their waste at an RV dump. There are several models available. Selway Fabrication, for example, makes a toilet that’s compatible with RV dumps. They are manufactured in Boise and sell for $399 each.

“The toilet comes with a hose fitting for running water into the toilet and pressuring the waste to go down the 3-inch hose into an RV dump facility,” said Nate Wilson, who has stacks of Selway toilet systems stored in his garage.

Lewiston and Clarkston boaters at least have the option of using the SCAT machine in Asotin after a Lower Salmon, Hells Canyon or main Salmon trip.

Wilson wondered if an entrepreneurial business person may try to make a buck by positioning a wastewater truck in Riggins and take floaters’ waste for a fee. That remains to be seen.

But floaters should know that they are part of the problem, too. Gem Stop officials who bought the Chevron in Riggins four years ago said they have tried hard to keep the SCAT machine in service and maintain good relations with the city of Riggins.

But the non-human waste items that get thrown into the machine have plugged the system dramatically in recent years, said Ted Schroder, construction manager for Gem Stop service stations. Floaters are putting non-biodegradable items like handy wipes, disposable diapers, charcoal and ashes, beer cans and other items into the machines, he said.

“Those kinds of items kept plugging up the SCAT machine, and sometimes it would back up and drain waste into the store,” Schroder said. “And then all of that stinky air would vent into the store, upsetting our customers. We even put in a septic tank out there to get a bigger line out of the building to try to solve the problem.”

Another issue is that many floaters don’t allow their party members to urinate in the toilet to save space inside, leaving too many solids in the waste stream, which has plugged up the system, Schroder said.

“We don’t want to be the bad guys causing a big problem, but after a lot of effort, we couldn’t make it work,” Schroder said. “We certainly gave it our all. We weren’t really making money on the SCAT machine, and we weren’t losing money, either, but we were getting a fair amount of complaints from our neighbors about foul odors. It’s one of those deals where everybody needs it, but nobody wants it.”

The portable toilet waste also posed problems for the city’s waste treatment plant—an aerobic activated sludge system. The lack of liquid in the toilets turned the waste septic and anaerobic by the time it reached the SCAT machine, making it unacceptable to the city’s system because it destroys the biological material required to process wastewater.

The SCAT machine, which is owned by the Forest Service, is still sitting in the Chevron building. Harris isn’t sure what they’re going to do with it. Schroder said the Forest Service just spent more than $3,000 to fix the machine, so it is in good working order.

Main Salmon River outfitters who are based in Salmon may end up dumping human waste on the way to Corn Creek in the Middle Fork SCAT machine, Estep said. Or they may try to find a way to dispose of the waste in Stanley.

North Fork Ranger Ken Gebhardt said they are having similar problems with the waste stream at the SCAT machine location for Middle Fork floaters—people putting handy wipes into the waste stream and other non-biodegradable items.

“They’re plugging up the system,” he said. “We also are having problems with our pumps and electrical systems.”

The Middle Fork SCAT machine is likely going to be replaced with a newer system in Salmon, potentially next year, Gebhardt said.

“We’re hoping there might be a business in Salmon or North Fork that might be willing to run a SCAT machine,” he said.

I personally have had to dump our waste from my rocket box toilet system at an RV dump. You bring a big stick and push a big pile of turds and toilet paper into a 3-inch hole while trying not to breathe through your nose. That, I can tell you, is no fun at all.

My recommendation is to consider upgrading to a new portable toilet like the Selway model that is compatible with an RV dump. That would give you a lot more options, no matter where you are doing a river trip. Or, stick with the old system and find a suitable place to clean out your groover after a trip.

It’s possible that the Forest Service may not have a solution ready for the 2019 float season in Riggins, and the SCAT machine for Middle Fork floaters may be shut down while they’re looking for a new location in Salmon or North Fork. Plan ahead. But please, do not put your waste into a dumpster in Riggins.

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Steve Stuebner is a longtime outdoor writer and Salmon River boater.

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