Officials want to find out
People are pooping in the Truckee River. Increasing homeless encampments in recent years have led to more debris, garbage and excrement along—and in—the river.
It’s gotten so bad that repeated concern has been raised about water quality and general public safety along Reno’s widely used scenic and recreational amenity.
“Lack of public restrooms has created a human waste issue that impacts the water quality of the Truckee River and its terminus, Pyramid Lake…” according to a document from the Truckee Meadows Water Authority. “TMWA and other agencies regularly record elevated Escherichia coli (E. coli) in the river, and while the source of E. coli has not been tied directly to a single source, human waste is a probable contributor.”
TMWA’s Andy Gebhardt, director of operations and water quality, said that—despite the camps—drinking water quality is not being impacted. Drinking water is diverted from the Truckee and subsequently treated.
“Homeless camps along the Truckee River banks are of obvious concern to us as the river is our primary source of supply,” Gebhardt explained. “Because of that, we have worked with the local entities, particularly the City of Sparks, to help ensure that the area around our intake structure at the Glendale Water Treatment plant, as well as the plant itself, are regularly monitored.”
TMWA, along with the City of Reno, are also seeking another potential solution: an innovative public restroom that officials hope will reduce waste and subsequent water contamination.
The Portland Loo, as it’s called, debuted in Portland 11 years ago, and the public restrooms have since been installed around the U.S. and Canada. The open-air loo is proposed to be installed at Brodhead Park, the green strip along the river just east of the Reno Police Department building.
The loos, however, while a potential solution for the need for people without homes to go to the bathroom, have generated other problems in communities where they have been installed.
National Public Radio reported in 2015 that San Diego’s new Portland Loos were pricey and became havens for illegal activity.
“The toilets turned out to be much pricier than expected, and some people complain that they could attract illict activity – prostitution or drug use,” reported Claire Trageser for the show All Things Considered.
Two years after that report, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that, as the region was battling “a massive outbreak of hepatitis A that has killed 16 and stricken 444 people,” the restrooms were filthy and hot spots “for meth and heroin use.”
To address those issues, the Portland Loos have blue lights so addicts can’t see their veins. Fans were installed to prevent people from using lighters to cook drugs. The Portland Loos also needed constant human attention—every few hours—to remain clean, something the City of Reno admitted could be a concern for the one it is proposing along the river.
“Challenges the City has had with other park restrooms include: use of drugs and improper disposal of hazardous materials; use of the building for overnight camping, washing clothes and cooking; setting fires inside the restrooms; and repetitive vandalism and graffiti,” city staff said.
Portland Loos are promoted as graffiti-proof, easy to clean and inexpensive to operate. Grates surround the upper and lower portions allow occupancy to be visible but still private enough to use. Handwashing stations are attached on the outside of the units. They are self-contained and operate on solar power.
“The restroom was designed with Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design by using high traffic areas and visibility to deter illegal activities and generate high usage rates,” the manufacturers proclaim.
They are also not cheap. The city wants to use the voter-approved, 2002 Question 1 conservation bond funds to pay for the restroom. The restroom at Brodhead Park is anticipated to cost nearly $300,000.
Like many attempts to address the county’s growing—and grim—affordable housing crisis, a public restroom will not be a silver bullet. The Portland Loo, while designed to mitigate inherent problems with public restrooms, could create other issues.
San Diego ended up dismantling one of their loos. It was called a “notorious financial boondoggle” after being in service for just 13 months. Other loos in the city, however, remained in place where criminal activity did not increase. San Diego officials blamed the location, not the loo’s technology, for the criminal activity.
Indeed, one of Portland’s original loos remains in operation after a decade. The city has six in its downtown core.
Reno officials have cautioned that the Brodhead Park restroom may help but not without regular attention.
“Given the challenging environment in this area the restroom may become an ongoing public safety and maintenance problem which may outweigh any public benefit it provides,” city staff said.
Nevertheless, the government officials are proposing to move forward on installing the restroom.
“By improving public spaces for everyone, restrooms build community resilience, support social cohesion, increase urban renewal, and improve public health,” TMWA noted. “With less human waste going into the river, everyone will enjoy it more safely and comfortably, potential vectors for infectious disease will be reduced, and the region’s water quality will improve.”
This article is published in partnership with in the Reno News & Review. It is available in their print edition and online.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time research appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.