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Marmots do not drink coffee: Human urine contributions to the nitrogen budget of a popular national park destination

April 26, 2023

Reactive nitrogen (Nr) concentrations are higher than expected for mountain lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park, and for many years, high Nr concentrations have been attributed to atmospheric Nr deposition from regional and more distant emission sources, including combustion of fossil fuels and agricultural activities. Here, we estimated the contribution from a very local source, that of human urine, related to intensive use by visitors in Loch Vale Watershed (LVWS). Not only does urine convey hormones, pharmaceuticals, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and antibiotic-resistant genes to the environment, but it also contributes Nr, which contributes to loss of biodiversity and eutrophication. Using caffeine as a specific marker for human urine, we compared the calculated maximum potential input of urine with that from wet atmospheric Nr deposition. The maximum potential input is a worst-case scenario. Nearly 30,000 and 45,000 people hiked the 4.0 km to the Loch, the lowest lake in LVWS, in June–September 2019 and 2020, respectively. Informal trails and informal latrine sites were mapped, and the contribution of human urine was calculated based on several assumptions, including that each visitor voided their bladder on the ground once per visit somewhere in Loch Vale. The resulting Nr input from urine in Loch Vale for the summer months of June through September was 0.02 kg Nr ha−1, and prorated to a full year, the 2019 potential contribution of human waste was 0.06 kg ha−1 year−1. These values are compared with June–September 1.2 kg Nr ha−1 from wet atmospheric deposition or annual measured 2019 deposition of 2.5 kg Nr ha−1 year−1, to indicate a contribution of 2% Nr to the waters of Loch Vale from local human urine. Most Nr in this alpine and subalpine watershed is still attributable to emissions and subsequent wet atmospheric deposition, but a 2% contribution from human waste is not insignificant. In the very broadest sense, our results document an ecological disturbance from an unprecedented level of human activity in a protected and designated wilderness area. Local solutions to this local problem could include greater outreach to visitors of public lands about the consequences of their activities and installation of latrines.

Publication Year 2023
Title Marmots do not drink coffee: Human urine contributions to the nitrogen budget of a popular national park destination
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.4504
Authors Jill Baron, Timothy Weinmann, Varun Kirk Acharya, Caitlin Charlton, Koren Nydick, Scott Esser
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70243065
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center