Who Let the Dogs Out?

(By Steven J. Moss) Three decades ago, the late City and County of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk took a giant step forward by walking directly...

Three decades ago, the late City and County of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk took a giant step forward by walking directly into a pile of dog waste, an event recorded by local news cameras. Supervisor Milk’s small sacrifice resulted in the City’s “pooper scooper” laws, and led to a cleaner, more livable, San Francisco.

Now it’s time for another step forward. In urban areas throughout the country, and thanks to the efforts of the vast majority of dog owners, we no longer have to dodge unpleasant memories of someone’s walk. But dog waste continues to impose serious environmental impacts. Dog excrement ”“ and animal waste in general ”“ produces “fecal phosphorus,” which, if left unchecked, can pollute surface and groundwater and promote unhealthy algae growth in rivers, lakes, and streams. In fact, it’s precisely this kind of waste that has caused state and federal officials to crack down on pollution from farms ”“ stockyards, dairies, chicken and pig feedlots are all being required to clean up their messes before they cause even more environmental damage. Yet dog waste contains higher concentrations of fecal phosphorus than any of these animals produce.

There may be as many as 120,000 dogs in San Francisco, though far fewer than that are actually licensed. Much of the waste these dogs produce ends up in trash receptacles, and from there to landfills. Whether or not this disposal method results in significant amounts of fecal phosphorus leaching into groundwater is substantially unknown ”“ this contaminant is not among those tested for by water quality regulators.

A much greater problem, however, is likely to be the untold mounds of waste collecting in backyards and as a result of dog owners being less than perfect in their scooping practices. When it rains, or when landscapes are irrigated, this unpleasant material is washed every which way ”“ in rare cases into sewage systems, where it can be most properly disposed of, but more often into our urban lakes and creeks, and sensitive wetland areas surrounding the bay.

While this problem may not be the same magnitude as global warming or habitat destruction, if ignored it will only get worse -- as the human population continues to grow so too will the number of their “best friends,” and concomitant wastes. And there are solutions, ranging from the unlikely ”“ mandatory potty-training for all pets ”“ to the plausible, such as changing what we feed our animals, which, according to recent studies, can reduce the resulting amount of fecal phosphorus levels at the back end.

Perhaps most promising would to follow in the hoof prints of other domesticated animals. Strauss Diary, in California’s Sonoma County, recently installed a small “digester” facility which turns cow manure into energy, which is not so far away from changing straw into gold. Dog waste doesn’t pack the same punch as cow patties, but there’s some indications that similar magic could be performed with this material. This solution, if it can be technologically and economically achieved, would provide an environmental two-fer ”“ eliminating an environmentally-threatening problem, and generating a cleaner burning renewable resource to replace nasty fossil fuels. Harvey Milk would be pleased.


Steven Moss’ first word, after he was born almost 44 years ago, was “Scotch,” the name of his families’ beloved border collie. He serves as Executive Director of San Francisco Community Power, www.sfpower.org.

Source: An ENN Commentary