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Despite the best efforts of a two-person crew, a rising tide of trash contaminated Oak Creek Canyon in July.

With a final summer cleanup still scheduled for Indian Gardens in less than two weeks, two Oak Creek Ambassadors Nick Kowall and Max Tapia reported the removal of 800 pounds of trash from Oak Creek last month, including over 150 pounds of poop — primarily from people.

“Most of the human feces found was from people pooping in trash bags and leaving them in Pumphouse Wash,” said Dalton Zanetti, operations assistant to the Oak Creek Watershed Council, who has worked with the Ambassadors since before they were downsized from two four-person crews at the end of September 2015. “We’ve had less people working out there, so it looks like we’ve been finding a lot more trash, honestly.”

A total of seven makeshift toilets were discovered in the wash July 20 by Kowall and Tapia.

They led a small volunteer crew in removing 83 diapers during four organized creek clean-ups last month — including a record 30 one day over the July 4 weekend — of the wash as well as at least six other creek sites.

Four days later, three different Oak Creek Canyon sites reported E. coli counts over five times above Arizona’s limit for safe swimming — including nearly 1,300 colony-forming units, or CFUs, per 100 millileters of creek water just upstream of Slide Rock State Park.

“The Ambassadors have spent a lot of time picking up trash from irresponsible recreators [like] feces left over from babies’ diapers,” said Amina Sena, a local U.S. Forest Service hydrologist. “So that is a tie to irresponsible recreation.”

Of the five creek sites sampled weekly by the Friends of the Forest, a local nonprofit service that reported the E. coli exceedances Aug. 2 to Sena, the site above Slide Rock is the closest to Pumphouse Wash.

Oak Creek Watershed Council studies as recently as four years ago have shown that most E. coli bacteria in the creek originates from animals. E. coli exceedances are strongly related to periods of dark water in the creek often seen after monsoon storms, Sena added.

But the U.S. Forest Service can no longer close any one recreational site in the canyon, Zanetti said — or all sites would have to be closed.

“I personally think it would be awesome if there was some limitation,” he said. “What that is, I couldn’t begin to tell you.”

While the council looks to build a water-sampling model that would let people know immediately if Oak Creek poses any health danger, there are just too many canyon access points along nearly 50 miles of State Route 89A for one even as notorious as Slide Rock to be closed, Zanetti added.

So even though, as of Aug. 2, E. coli levels at Grasshopper Point and Midgley Bridge were 250 to 430 CFUs higher than Slide Rock, no Oak Creek Canyon recreational site has been closed for that reason since 2012.

“They just sign and educate the public on the results,” Sena added. “It turns more into what the public is aware of, and it’s in their hands whether or not to decide to swim that day.”

Both Sena and Zanetti also declined to comment on the possibility of a summer permit system similar to one the Forest Service instituted in May at Fossil Creek Wilderness Area, accessed six miles east of Camp Verde.

“Fossil Creek has vastly improved under the permit system,” Sena said.

The $6 pre-paid permits, printed online, limit day traffic into Fossil Creek to 148 cars.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the amount of garbage trucked out of Fossil Creek by the Forest Service was reduced from three truckloads to three bags, according to Francisca Adrian, wilderness, trails and rivers coordinator for the Red Rock Ranger District.

“If that happens in Oak Creek, it would be managed differently because it just has so many more factors,” Zanetti said. “Fossil Creek has one road in and one road out. It’s a lot easier.”

Saturday, Aug. 6, Kowall and Tapia removed 150 pounds of trash during their first visit to Fossil Creek.

From one Oak Creek Canyon campsite a month earlier, Kowall and Tapia removed 240 pounds, filling their truck with over 10 bags of trash — including a 36-pound bag of human feces and 15 diapers.

“There’s just no silver bullet for this problem,” Sena said. “Pack it in, pack it out.”

For more information about the Oak Creek Ambassadors' final public cleanup of the summer in Oak Creek Canyon, please see the Friday, Aug. 12, issue of the Sedona Red Rock News.