A stinky situation awaits rafters this season in Idaho's whitewater capital

Last summer, Gem Stop service station notified the Salmon River Ranger District that it was going to shut down the SCAT machine — 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 the Forest Service met with Riggins city officials and was told that the city would no longer take the waste stream from the SCAT machine because it wasn’t compatible with the sewer system — too many foreign objects like handy wipes, beer cans and bottles, charcoal, disposable diapers, etc., were included.

So more than 10,000 private and commercial floaters who will be floating the Main Salmon (River of No Return) wilderness river trip this summer will have to find an alternative way to dispose of human waste in their portable toilets. This also will affect floaters coming off Hells Canyon river trips at Pittsburg Landing, and boaters that do the Lower Salmon River, jet back to Pittsburg Landing, and head south through Riggins.

It’s a potentially very 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 clean-out after a week-long 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 river trips, which does day trips and multi-day 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 s---,” 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 that required floaters to pack out their human waste in the late 1980s. The agency maintained pit toilets at Main Salmon and Middle Fork Salmon River camp sites for a number of years, and then, due to concerns about the potential of fecal material or e-coli bleeding into the pristine rivers, they phased out the pit toilets altogether and moved to a pack-it-out regulation.

SCAT machines were placed in Riggins and on the Salmon River Road on the way out from a Middle Fork trip, near North Fork, Idaho, so floaters could dump their waste after a trip. 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 not accommodate a key part of a float party’s experience — dumping waste in a sanitary manner at the conclusion of a trip.

“What are they going to do?” is the big question on Mayor Glenna McClure’s mind. She 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 without a solid solution. “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, that has 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 in the south part of 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 that will accept it. “We’re hoping to have a solution for 2019,” Harris said.

In the meantime, I’ve been checking into portable toilet systems that are equipped with a 3-inch hose that would allow floaters 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.

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Nate Wilson demonstrates the 3-inch hose hookup for an RV dump on the Selway toilet. Courtesy of Steve Stuebner

“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.

Wilson also notes that there is a business in Boise, called the A Company, that will clean out a rocket box toilet system or a bucket system for $20 per clean-out. The A Company has a porta-potty business and is equipped to handle human waste streams. “I take my groover to the A Company after my trips, because they deal with the clean-out and it comes back to me smelling all nice and clean,” he said.

Wilson wonders 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 after their trips. 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 and have operated the SCAT machine over that period of time say they have tried hard to keep the machine in service and maintain good relations with the city of Riggins so they would accept the waste stream.

But the amount of non-human waste items that get thrown into the SCAT machine has plugged up the system dramatically in recent years, said Ted Schroder, construction manager for Gem Stop service stations.

“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 pee in the toilet to save space inside, leaving too many solids in the waste stream, which also plugged up the system, he 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.”

Riggins city officials added: “The City of Riggins has an aerobic activated sludge system. For those using the SCAT system, the waste material becomes septic by the time it is deposited in the SCAT machine due to the lack of liquid; this changes the chemical makeup of the material to anaerobic, which is unacceptable to the city's system and destroys the biological material required to process our wastewater.”

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The SCAT machine at Gem Stop Chevron included extensive instructions. Courtesy of Gem Stop

The SCAT machine is still sitting in the Chevron building. It’s owned by the Forest Service. Harris isn’t sure what they’re going to do with it, but Wilson is one who would like to see the agency sell the machine to someone who might be willing to operate it in Boise. Treasure Valley locals who float the Owyhee, Bruneau or Grand Ronde rivers have to find a way to dump their waste at an RV dump in Boise after they return home, and creating a SCAT machine location in Boise would be an excellent solution.

I personally have had to dump our human waste from my rocket box toilet system at an RV dump in Boise. 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.

Schroder said the Forest Service just spent more than $3,000 to fix the SCAT machine, so it is still 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 Newland Ranch SCAT machine location for Middle Fork floaters — people putting handy wipes into the waste stream and other non-biodegradable items. “Those wet wipes are not biodegradable and 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.

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 use the A Company 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.

Steve Stuebner is a contributor to Idaho Outdoors. See his weekly outdoor blog at Stueby’s Outdoor Journal http://stuebysoutdoorjournal.blogspot.com.

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