Reddit Gold: “Is it okay to wash dishes in rivers?”

Reddit Gold highlights the most useful and educational content on Reddit as found on r/AutoBestOf.

Today’s post is from u/DSettahr who answers the question: “Is it okay to wash dishes in rivers?

Recreation ecologist here. I have both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in forestry with a focus in recreation resource management. My Master’s thesis work was in monitoring of impacts at backcountry campsites. I also have 10 seasons of experience as a backcountry ranger professionally, and have clocked over 1,000 nights spent camped in the backcountry in my lifetime to date.

There’s some good and some not good responses in this thread. /u/TboneXXIV is sort of close, but the issue with food waste (and with soaps/detergents especially) is not so much that these things are directly harmful to aquatic organisms- but more so that as these materials start to break down they provide food for aquatic organisms (algae especially). The end result is that you get an increase in the algae population, which in turn results in what is called a trophic cascade, in which the ecological balances that help keep populations stable are offset. As the algae population increases, they consume more resources, resulting in a decrease in other organism populations that are also dependent on those same resources. This is why biodegradable soaps still aren’t good to use in or near water sources (contrary to what many backpackers believe).

Some folks posting here are correct in that the above is really only a potential problem at heavily used backcountry sites specifically- but there’s a few additional reasons why you shouldn’t ever wash your dishes in any surface water bodies, and why you should camp away (at least a few hundred feet) from water sources whenever possible (excepting perhaps at officially established/designated sites):

  • Even a single round of dish washing can create a visible impact (food scraps, soap suds, gross drinking water) that is enough to lower the quality of a trip for other visitors. To put it simply: You can argue that a single round of dish washing will have an immeasurable impact on the ecosystem, and you might not necessarily be wrong- but would you still want to visit a beautiful backcountry lake or stream that has the remnants of someone’s left over dinner floating by?
  • One important reason for minimizing the amount of time you spend at a water source is that your presence alone on or near water bodies can be extremely disruptive to local wildlife (especially prey species). The presence of humans at this same water source may be enough to discourage those same species from drinking at all (this can be a huge issue during drought or in dry environments). In the case of water fowl, you also have to be careful about nesting sites (they often aren’t obvious). Mother birds may abandon their nests entirely in the presence of hikers/backpackers spending too much time on the water nearby. Ergo, if you’re washing your dishes away from the water (like you should be), your impact on local wildlife is going to be reduced as well.
  • Many backcountry areas also show a significant correlation between recreational use adjacent to water bodies and the presence of human fecal bacterial colonies present within those same water bodies. In other words, if you’re camped on a water body that has a lot of campsites on the shoreline, or even just has a popular trail that crosses upstream, then there’s a strong likelihood that there are microscopic particles of human poop (and associated bacteria) floating around in that same water body. (I’ve helped with some of this data collection myself.) Accordingly, if you’re washing your dishes using untreated water directly in the water source, there’s a decent chance that you’re probably washing your dishes with poop water.
  • And if the above arguments don’t sway you, keep in mind as well that washing your dishes directly in water sources is illegal on most (if not all) public lands. If a ranger catches you doing it, you can usually be issued a citation and fined for it.

It’s OK to spend some time enjoying water; waterfront views can be especially scenic and are often a large part of the desired experience that draws us to backcountry areas. But we need to be especially careful regarding the behaviors we choose to engage in, both on the water and within the riparian zone (the boundary between land and water, which can be particularly sensitive to camping impacts especially). Walking down to the shoreline from a campsite to gather water and enjoy the view is (usually) perfectly acceptable, but many of the “camping specific” activities (tenting, cooking, dish cleaning, human waste disposal) have a much greater potential to generate adverse impacts on shoreline and aquatic ecosystems than does simply enjoying the view. Accordingly, these activities are best conducted away from water sources where ever possible.

With regards to dish washing, /u/lightscarred had pretty good, simple instructions in this thread. Generally speaking, you want to first endeavor to have as little food waste as possible- either by eating all of the food, or by bagging any left overs to be carried out. Once you’ve scraped your dishes as clean as you can get them, it’s OK to to rinse them with water (and maybe the teeniest, tiniest bit of soap if needed), and then to disperse the gray water over as wide an area as possible, as far as possible from both your campsite and any water bodies (ideally at least 200 feet). Alternatively, if you don’t use soap, you can just drink the grey water- which is great, because using this method you don’t need to get up off your butt and leave camp to take care of the dishes (although admittedly the taste is a bit of an acquired one- but if I can get 8 teenage girls to do it on youth backpacking trips without complaint, then the average Redditor is capable of doing it too, I think).

The trap that many fall into with regards to Leave No Trace ethics generally (which, by the way, are supported by an extensive amount of peer-reviewed scientific study) is thinking only “what is the impact if I do this?” and acting accordingly. The reality is that the consequences of our impacts on the backcountry are cumulative- and in many cases, there can even be an exponential increase in impacts as a function of use level if enough users are generating the same impacts in the same area. The proper question to ask (as some have indicated in this thread) is rather, “what is the impact if everyone does this?” and make our choices based on that question instead. The challenge here, of course, is that being able to make these determinations requires some understanding of Leave No Trace that goes beyond the knowledge and understanding of many in the backpacking community.

It’s OK to suggest that there’s unique circumstances in which strict, blind adherence to LNT isn’t feasible- but I sure hope that everyone who does has at least spent some time on the Leave No Trace website so as to gain knowledge and understanding that allows for informed decision making in these circumstance. I worry, though, that all too often members of the outdoors communities on Reddit like to use singular examples of unique (and frankly, not that common) situations in which strict adherence seemingly isn’t feasible (or is even harmful) as evidence against the Leave No Trace philosophy as a whole- and these sorts of arguments aren’t even close to valid. The reality of Leave No Trace is that the ethics are actually fairly fluid- and allow for a range of different methods in different circumstances (different ecosystems, different levels of use, etc.) so as to best tailor the individual methods for each situation. And while LNT isn’t exactly rocket science, being able to make these choices does nevertheless require some understanding of Leave No Trace that goes beyond simply knowing that it is a thing that exists, or having read little more than a list of the 7 principles somewhere in a guidebook or on a map.

There’s a ton of resources available that can help backpackers to gain more and better understanding of how our actions can negatively impact backcountry resources. The LNT program sponsors a lot of short, informal “awareness sessions” with the assistance of local hiking clubs. If you’re really interested, you can even get a certification as an LNT Master Educator (IMO, a “must have” for anyone who works as an outdoor recreation professional).

There’s also a bunch of resources in print. While it’s a bit dated, the US Forest Service’s Low Impact Recreational Practices for Wilderness and Backcountry (PDF Link) is more or less the bible of minimum-impact ethics, and was compiled by David N. Cole, who probably knows more on the subject of recreation ecology than anyone else. (Surprisingly, the Forest Service has done a lot more research in the field of recreation ecology than the National Park Service has.) There’s also a few books on the subject that I highly recommend. Laura and Guy Waterman have written and published two: The Green Guide to Low Impact Hiking and Camping (which focuses mainly on physical impacts on backcountry resources) and Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness (which focuses on social impacts on backcountry resources). The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has also published a great book on the subject: Soft Paths: Enjoying the Wilderness Without Harming It.

I hope this is helpful.

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