More than 3,000 pounds of broken beer bottles, cans and other litter has been removed from Illia Dunes, which have been closed indefinitely for public safety reasons.
“We believe it’s a joint effort between the Corps (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) and the public, specifically dunes visitors, to act responsibly so we can keep the recreation area open,” said Bruce Henrickson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs specialist.
Henrickson said an estimated 3,000 visitors were at the dunes Aug. 25 and 26, leaving broken bottles and beer cans in the water and garbage in the parking lots and roadway. The recreation area was closed Monday because of health and safety concerns from the trash accumulation, Henrickson said.
A fire was also started in a parking lot and burned up to 1,100 acres, according to Garfield County Sheriff Ben Keller. A suspect has been arrested and charged with second-degree arson.
Illia Dunes, on the south bank of the Snake River three miles west of Lower Granite Dam, is a popular hangout spot for college students from Washington State University, University of Idaho and even Eastern Washington University. Litter still needs to be cleared from the water and three miles of ditch between the dunes and the Lower Granite Dam.
“For every action there is a necessary follow-up action,” Henrickson said. “We feel we had no choice in closing the dunes … it’s unfortunate.”
The Corps, Henrickson said, intends to reopen the dunes in the future, but first has to make the area safe for public use. Water samples are being tested for contamination.
Although the litter problem has been building all summer, the huge crowd Aug. 25 and 26 triggered the closure, Henrickson said.
Henrickson said a typical weekend summer crowd at the dunes consists of 100 to 300 visitors. During holiday weekends or the start of school, Henrickson said up to 2,000 people might be at the dunes. But he said 3,000 visitors is the largest crowd their park manager has seen since he started in 2001.
Alcohol consumption is allowed at the dunes, but glass bottles are prohibited, Henrickson said. Visitors are asked to carry out their own trash with free plastic bags provided by the Corps, and restrooms are available. Henrickson said park managers and Garfield County Sheriff’s office officials enforce these regulations.
Keller said at least one law enforcement official patrols the dunes every Saturday, and there is no tolerance for alcohol violations. Several people were cited with minors in possession of alcohol and two ambulance calls were made for alcohol poisoning during the massive party at the dunes, Keller said.
“It’s a habitat environment, it wasn’t designed for that,” he said.
Many people head to the dunes for boating activities such as wakeboarding and tubing or to lie on the beach and enjoy the water. Heather French, longtime Moscow resident, said the dunes were a favorite weekend getaway for her late husband Matt Cochran and their children during the summer.
“We’re sort of landlocked here and for many of us locals it’s the only beach we’re ever going to get,” French said. “When people treat it like it’s a landfill, it’s insulting.”
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Lower Granite Dam access was prohibited and French said the dunes were only accessible by boat. In 2008, the dam reopened to allow vehicle access.
French said it’s the responsibility of dunes visitors to hold one another accountable for keeping the area clean. College students also need to realize it’s a recreation area for families and children, French said.
Amy Westberg, UI sophomore, said she has been going to the dunes since she was a student at Moscow High School. She said the dunes are a fun place to hang out and meet new people.
“I have some great memories there and I’m disappointed in students’ actions,” she said. “To ruin that experience for other people … as students we should be more mature and responsible.”
During her visits to the dunes, Westberg said students have been conscious about cleaning up trash. With the free plastic bags provided by the Corps, Westberg said there is no reason for students not to clean up after themselves.
“I hope that they’re able to clean up the dunes and that in the future students will be more responsible,” she said.
Henrickson said the dunes is past its peak recreation season and the reservoir level will be raised soon, which means the dunes might not reopen again this season. The Corps is reviewing current policies regulating the dunes to prevent similar incidents in the future. Prohibiting alcohol consumption might be a new stipulation.
Henrickson said the Corps’ Lower Granite Natural Resources office is working with the WSU Center for Civic Engagement to coordinate students from WSU for a volunteer cleanup day Sept. 1. Several WSU Greek houses such as Kappa Delta Sorority and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and about a dozen individual WSU students, have offered to help clean the dunes. Henrickson said he is not aware of any specific offers from volunteers at UI.
Henrickson said the Corps works to provide for people of all ages at the Illia Dunes recreation area, but visitors should remember that certain policies limit behavior at the dunes.
“We host all sorts of visitors and we try not to restrict them too much. For example, we allow responsible consumption of alcohol,” he said. “We’re here to serve the public and welcome everyone within reasonable boundaries. But public safety is our highest priority.”
Elisa Eiguren can be reached at email@example.com