Steamboat tracks tourists by how frequently they flush
January 3, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Even tourists have to use the toilet.
That’s why, occasionally, city officials make note of the amount of wastewater treated to determine how many people are visiting Steamboat Springs. It's not formally tracked, but it offers a novel measure of how many tourists are in town.
In a town where tourism is a major economic driver, knowing how many people are visiting is important.
City Manager Gary Suiter said some resort communities use the volume of wastewater treated as a metric for how many tourists are in town, but in Steamboat, it's more of a fun fact.
"It's not all that meaningful to me," Suiter said. "It's an interesting data point, but I don't really know how reliable it is."
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Several problems with the measurement make it unreliable.
First, when runoff water from rainfall or groundwater enters the system, it's processed along with sewage, so the total processed amount is not entirely sewage, explained Gilbert Anderson, superintendent of the Steamboat Wastewater Treatment Plant. Secondly, nobody has worked to correlate the amount of wastewater treated to sales tax or any of the other metrics that are actually used, Suiter said.
Suiter said the best measure for tourism in Steamboat is the Steamboat Springs Chamber's weekly occupancy reports sent to Chamber members, which reflect how many people are staying in hotels in the city.
Other measures, such as sales tax revenue, gross sales per square foot at retail businesses and the number of skiers at Steamboat Resort can also indicate visitation numbers, Suiter said.
Sales totals and skier numbers are data owned by private companies, though, and can be difficult to access, he added.
Anderson said the wastewater plant saw its peak flow for the month of December on Dec. 31.
"Common sense is that when there are a lot of tourists in town, we have a pretty high flow,” Anderson said. “In other words, this week would be pretty high flow."
He added that on average, each person contributes about 120 gallons a day to the city's sewage.
Though right now there are likely more toilets flushing, the wastewater plant's busiest season is in the spring, when there's a significant increase in nonsewage water as snow melts into the city's water infrastructure.
The fall shoulder season, when there are fewer tourists and very little runoff, is the slow season at the plant.