Doggy dilemma: What effect does pet waste have at Ragged Mountain?

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Signs prohibiting pets at Ragged Mountain Natural Area were recently posted in its new parking lot to limit confusion and people breaking the rules. Staff photo Signs prohibiting pets at Ragged Mountain Natural Area were recently posted in its new parking lot to limit confusion and people breaking the rules. Staff photo

Pets may be strictly prohibited at Ragged Mountain Natural Area, but some say wanton disregard of the rules could cause serious health effects for those in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

Albemarle resident Marlene Condon says she sees several dogs each time she visits Ragged Mountain, with about 50 percent of them not being held on a leash. To Condon, what’s more important, she says, is what those four-legged friends leave behind after their day at the nature area.

“A lot of people think that it’s okay to leave behind their dog droppings because they don’t understand the difference between dog scat and wildlife scat,” she says. Simply put, while animals in the wild aren’t medicated, pets can be—and they pass that medication through their urine and stool.

“There is certainly concern about pharmaceutical compounds making their way into the environment,” says Dr. Mike Fietz, a veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. “Doctors worry about it all the time with the rise of antibiotic resistance.” The same goes for household pets, he says.

According to Fietz, passing medication through urine may be the largest threat because some medications are eliminated that way. Pet owners are able to pick up stool droppings, but Condon says, in her experience, a lot of dog walkers don’t.

City and county water is stored in a 1.8-mile watershed at Ragged Mountain. Lifting the prohibition on recreational use at the park was heavily debated in October and then-City Councilor Dede Smith said one of her main apprehensions to lifting the ban was preserving drinking water in the reservoir. In a previous C-VILLE report, Smith said some areas should not only be banned to pets and bikers, but to hikers, too.

Tom Frederick, director of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, says he does not oppose dogs being allowed at the park, but hopes pet owners will be responsible and clean up after their pets. If they don’t, though, he says people who drink the water RWSA stores at Ragged Mountain still have no need to worry.

To ensure clean water, RWSA uses a multiple-barrier approach beginning with the natural barrier of the forest floor, which filters water through underbrush, plants and trees. The reservoir itself provides some purification through sunlight and the settling of water. When water is transferred to the treatment facility, professionals treat the water through several processes including advanced filtration and, finally, disinfection with chlorine.

Though the watershed may not be negatively impacted by the presence of dogs, it doesn’t eliminate the fact that they’re not supposed to be there.

In Condon’s correspondence with city and county officials, Albemarle Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Diantha McKeel was sympathetic. In a trip to Ragged Mountain last fall, McKeel says she was alarmed by two large, off-leash dogs running toward her own pup. She also noticed there were no receptacles in which to put her “doggy bag” after picking up her pet’s waste. At that time, she says signs prohibiting pets weren’t posted.

Brian Daly, the director of Charlottesville Parks & Recreation, says signs have been posted at the park’s lower parking lot for years, but were moved to the new lot in late November or early December. He says there is still an issue with people bringing pets to the park and the city has notified Animal Control, which patrols the area about every other week to notify dog walkers that they are breaking the rules and to ticket repeat offenders.

According to Daly, the rules prohibiting pets have been in place since the Ivy Creek Foundation controlled the park in the late 1990s and are still in effect while new rules are discussed and finalized. Dogs are not allowed because “the trails were originally built for hikers only and it was felt that dogs would disturb the quiet enjoyment of the natural area,” he says. The city now controls the park.

Condon feels that the city’s Parks & Recreation Department policing is inadequate.

“Residents are fortunate to have such clean water as well as a natural area where folks, including children, can experience the wonders of nature,” she says. “It’s beyond my understanding why the people in charge don’t seem to appreciate the true value of both. I, for one, do not care to be stepping in dog droppings, courtesy of people who are rude and thoughtless enough to not properly take care of their pets’ droppings.”