Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sable the Sewer Sniffing Dog

Guided by his trainer, environmental scientist Scott Reynolds, Sable the German shepherd mix sniffs bottles containing water samples from Kawkawlin River. Sable is trained to detect the scent of human sewage and household detergents, rooting out illicit and failing septic connections that flow from homes into rivers and streams.

Dog Provides Low-Cost, Low-Tech Fix for Cities' Sewer Problems
The New York Times
August 18, 2009
By TARYN LUNTZ of Greenwire

To the long list of jobs that dogs do for humans, add another: the detection of water pollution.

Meet Sable, a German shepherd mix with a nose for sewage.

Sable's trainer, Scott Reynolds, who works for an environmental consulting firm, Tetra Tech in Lansing, Mich., said the three-and-a-half-year-old mutt is the only canine known to reliably detect raw sewage or detergents flowing into sewers from illegal or bungled pipe connections.

The dog has sniffed out illegal connections in three Michigan counties. And field tests in 2007 and 2008 showed Sable was 87 percent accurate compared with traditional laboratory water tests, Reynolds said. When the dog errs, Reynolds said, it is probably due to the presence of animal, not human, waste in the sewers.

Word of Sable's exploits are spreading. Communities in Maine and New Hampshire struggling to protect their swimming beaches and shellfish beds from bacterial pollution are considering bringing the dog to New England.

Forrest Bell of consulting firm FB Environmental, which is coordinating the Maine and New Hampshire cleanups, said Sable can save money by reducing the number of dye tests -- where dye is dropped into toilets so investigators can see where it goes -- and follow-up lab work.

The price for trainer and dog to travel and work for a week would range between $5,000 and $10,000, but using other specialized tests -- say, genetic fingerprinting to help investigators distinguish between animal and human fecal bacteria -- would cost more than $100,000, Bell said. "We think that Sable is going to be a good, cost-effective and accurate way to try to do some of these detections," he said.

Sue Kubic, senior engineer with Michigan's Genesee County Drain Commission, which has employed Sable, said the dog provides quick results. "Instead of sending a sample to a lab and finding out two weeks or two months later and having to go back and take three or four or five more samples, you can narrow it down and eliminate some of the tests you have to take," she said.

Sniffing sewage, Sable tracks the scent to where it originates upstream, obviating the need for additional rounds of lab testing downstream. "We can take it from 200 houses to maybe we only need to do dyed-water testing for 10," Reynolds said.

Said Kubic: "Sending that crew out day after day, going and spending an hour or two at each house, doing dye testing to find out if the sanitary is hooked up to the storm system -- if you start adding up the people time and travel time, that's where the real money is."

And there is a lot of money being spent as cities whose storm sewers date to the early 20th century have struggled to clean up discharges into waterways from underground networks of pipes that have often never been mapped.

When Tetra Tech hatched the idea of training a canine to sniff out sewage, it turned to Reynolds, a former narcotics-dog trainer, to do the job.

Reynolds, 38, found Sable at a shelter and was impressed by the focus the dog showed in chasing tennis balls.

So Reynolds took Sable home and started him on a scent-tracking program in the spring of 2007, rewarding the dog for pursuing scents related to raw sewage and detergents. He then moved Sable to off-leash searching in difficult terrain and with false targets planted to help him differentiate between scents he would likely encounter in drainage areas.

By July 2007, Sable was working on field trials at a known illicit sewer connection; by August, he was a full-fledged member of the company's field crew.

Reynolds is now training two more sewage sniffers and has started his own company, Environmental Canine Services LLC. He offers detection services, as well as training for agencies that want their own scent-trained dogs.

The point, Reynolds said, is to make the service affordable for small communities and nonprofit organizations.

But does Sable, who lives with Reynolds and his family, think his job stinks?

Not at all.

"He loves it!" Reynolds exclaimed. "Every day, when I get ready for work, he runs and jumps on the counter, looking at his harness and hoping that he gets to work that day."

Copyright 2009 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ogden Dunes' Beach Water Quality Monitoring Program

Ogden Dunes is a town in NW Indiana with beachfront on Lake Michigan. The video linked above describes their beach water quality monitoring program, including how samples are collected and processed, what is done with the data and how decisions are made to either open or close their beaches for swimming. While this beach program is testing fresh water from a Great Lakes Beach, this video is completely applicable to all ocean beaches in the US as well. The sampling, analysis & decision making are all the same. There is just a different bacteria standard that is tested, Enterococcus for marine waters, rather than E. Coli in fresh water.

I highly recommend anyone interested in the science behind beach closures and swimming advisories to check out this video. It is brief and very informative.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Beach Sand & Stomach Aches

What Science Says About Beach Sand and Stomach Aches
Released: 8/10/2009 8:52:44 AM

By washing your hands after digging in beach sand, you could greatly reduce your risk of ingesting bacteria that could make you sick. In new research, scientists have determined that, although beach sand is a potential source of bacteria and viruses, hand rinsing may effectively reduce exposure to microbes that cause gastrointestinal illnesses.

“Our mothers were right! Cleaning our hands before eating really works, especially after handling sand at the beach,” said Dr. Richard Whitman, the lead author of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study. “Simply rinsing hands may help reduce risk, but a good scrubbing is the best way to avoid illness.”

For this study, scientists measured how many E. coli bacteria could be transferred to people’s hands when they dug in sand. They analyzed sand from the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Using past findings on illness rates, scientists found that if individuals were to ingest all of the sand and the associated biological community retained on their fingertip, 11 individuals in 1000 would develop symptoms of gastrointestinal illness. Ingestion of all material on the entire hand would result in 33 of 1000 individuals developing gastrointestinal illness.

In a further laboratory experiment, USGS scientists determined that submerging one’s hands four times in clean water removed more than 99% of the E. coli and associated viruses from the hands.

In recent years, USGS scientists have discovered that concentrations of E. coli bacteria in beach sand are often much higher than those in beach water. Follow-up research at beaches around the nation by many scientists has resulted in similar findings, although the amount of bacteria in sand varies depending on the beach. Although beach water is monitored for E. coli as mandated in the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act 2000), beach sand is not currently monitored for contamination.

Recent analysis of seven beaches across the nation by the University of North Carolina -Chapel Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that beachgoers digging in sand were more likely to develop gastrointestinal illness after a day at the beach compared to those not digging in sand. The association with these illnesses was even stronger for individuals who reported being partially covered up in sand. Because children played in the sand more frequently and were more likely to get sand in their mouths, they were more likely to develop gastrointestinal illness after a day at the beach.

“The excess illnesses we observed among those exposed to sand generally consisted of mild gastrointestinal symptoms, but it is a good idea to be sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after digging or playing in the sand,” said Chris Heaney, lead author of the UNC study.

E. coli is an indicator of recent sewage contamination and if it is present, pathogens harmful to human health are also likely present. The origin of these bacteria is often unknown. They can persist throughout the swimming season, remaining a potential contamination source to beach visitors.

Results of these studies highlight the need to intensify efforts to determine sources of microbial contamination to beaches and associated risk of playing in beach sand.

USGS provides science for a changing world. For more information, visit

For more information on bacteria in beach sand read Surfrider's Coastal A-Z online paper.

Water Testing at Kaua'i Beaches

In Kaua'i, only 5 beaches are regularly monitored by the State. The Surfrider Chapter, however, is expanding on this beach program by testing 16 beaches monthly for bacteria. Results are posted on the Chapter's website.

Although, this remote Hawaiian island may conjure up visions of pristine beaches, unfortunately pollution washing down from the land has become a reality at some Kaua'i beaches. This issue has received local media attention recently (below) with comments by the Chapter's BWTF Manager, Dr. Carl Berg.

Is the water safe for swimming?

Water under the bridge: Waves wash into a Hanapepe drainage ditch, Sunday. A brown water advisory remains in effect on Kaua‘i.

Bacteria source questioned; advisory continues
By Coco Zickos - The Garden Island
Published: Monday, August 17, 2009 2:10 AM HST

• Editor’s note: This is the first article in an ongoing series to run periodically that will examine Kaua‘i water quality.

LIHU‘E — Questionable water conditions continued to lurk Sunday, as brown waves rolled onto shorelines and murky rivers and streams flowed into the ocean.

Bacteria counts are always higher after heavy rains, but it can’t be confirmed whether the cause is human waste, said Watson Okubo, monitoring and analysis section chief of the Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch.

While enterococcus — a bacteria commonly found in the feces of humans and animals — is known to be in many bodies of water throughout the island, Watson says it “may or may not be from human fecal matter.”

As of 2004, enterococcus, as opposed to e. coli, became the new indicator for federal standards of water quality at public beaches because it reportedly provides a higher correlation to many of the human pathogens often fou nd in sewage, according to a study from Water Environment Research.

Pathogens from polluted waters cause illnesses such as vomiting, headache, fever, sore throat, diarrhea, skin, ear, eye and respiratory infections, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The day before heavy rains saturated the islands Wednesday night and Thursday morning, a routine sampling completed by the DOH found that Hanalei Bay, at the end of Weke Road at Black Pot Beach, resulted in a 500 count of enterococcus per 100 mL of water — about five times the state’s “safe” level standard.

The number of bacteria in the water at Black Pot after Felicia’s remnants passed through could not be obtained by press time.

Additional tests were completed, however, by Surfrider Foundation Kaua‘i on a volunteer basis Saturday. Kalapaki Stream — which is not tested by the DOH, as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 does not require inland water monitoring — had the highest count of enterococcus at 1,467.

“Just because you have a high enterococcus count does not mean you have a high sewage discharge,” Okubo said Friday.

Dr. Carl Berg of Kaua‘i Surfrider Foundation agreed. Enterococcus is not the “end all” indicator, he said. But, it’s no coincidence that there are a high number of cesspool and septic sewage systems which line the coasts of Kaua‘i.

Cesspools are dry wells or pits that leach untreated liquid sewage into the ground. Septic systems move waste into a multi-chamber tank with pipes which spread out over a large area and have perforations that the sewage absorbs into the ground from.

If either of these are not maintained properly, leached wastewater can infiltrate coastal recreational waters, according to the NRDC.

There are some 8,900 cesspools on Kaua‘i, largely residential, said Tom See of the Environmental Management Division of the DOH Wastewater Branch. Since 2004, new cesspools are no longer allowed on Kaua‘i.

“From the state perspective, there are currently no efforts to require functioning cesspools to be upgraded to septic systems or aerobic units unless the cesspool is in the groundwater or it is failing,” See said Friday.

The EPA requires large capacity cesspools — those which service 20 or more people a day and those at multi-dwelling residential units — to be upgraded, he added.

To upgrade from a cesspool to septic system the cost might be between $8,000 and $20,000, depending on site conditions, See said.

Though Hawai‘i beaches often rank high with entities such as Travelocity and Dr. Beach, Berg said data can be skewed depending on which beaches are tested, where the samples are collected and their proximity to rivers and streams.

For instance, neither Hanama‘ulu, which was ranked the 10th most polluted beach in the nation by the NRDC in 2007, or Waimea Recreational Pier State Park, which was considered the most polluted in the state in 2008, are tested on a regular basis.

Only five sites — Po‘ipu Beach Park, Kalapaki Beach, Hanalei Beach Park, Salt Pond Beach Park and Lydgate State Park — out of 73 on Kaua‘i are tested at least once a week and the samples are drawn from only one location on the beach.

So how can the public know what they are swimming in?

Besides common knowledge that whatever is in the ground and on the land will eventually seep into storm drains and rivers when it rains, thus flowing into the ocean, the first step toward cleaner waters is initiating comprehensive testing for enterococcus, Berg said.

The next step would be to determine which areas are of greatest concern and determining whether the bacteria can be attributed to human waste.

The ultimate goal would be to correct the situation, Berg said.

A brown water advisory is still in effect for the island, according to the state Clean Water Branch.

The public is advised to stay out of flood waters and storm water runoff due to possible overflowing cesspools, pesticides, animal fecal matter, dead animals, chemicals and associated flood debris. If coastal waters are turbid and brown, stay out.

• Coco Zickos, business and environmental writer

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Santa Cruz Chapter BWTF

The Santa Cruz Chapter in California recently received some local media attention for their BWTF program, story below.

Also, check out their BWTF webpage

Our Ocean Backyard: Surfing cleaner waters

Posted: 08/08/2009 01:30:23 AM PDT by Dan Haifley, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Irish philosopher George Berkeley once posed the question: if a tree falls and no one's around to hear it, would it really make a sound?

If he were alive today, he could also ask: Would our water quality be any better if nobody bothered to check?

Of course water contamination would exist even if people weren't looking for it. But people do pay attention, which helps make the quality of the water flowing through streams and storm drains to the sea safer.

Some who test water quality are volunteers, and some, such as surfers and farmers, have a direct stake in its outcomes. And, they are really good at it.

One project occurred on a Saturday last May when 224 volunteers took a snapshot of Central Coast water quality. Complementing that is a year-round effort by volunteers for Surfrider Santa Cruz.

Surfrider Santa Cruz is a chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an international nonprofit organization of surfers that burst onto the scene in the early 1990s after winning a water quality judgment against a pulp mill in Eureka.

Local Surfrider volunteers have adopted several area beaches that they monitor for levels of indicator bacteria E. coli and enterococci, which are organic contaminants. When levels of these indicator bacteria exceed California's established recreational standards -- 400 colonies per 100 milliliters for E. coli and 104 colonies per 100 milliliters for enterococci -- beachgoers have an increased risk for exposure o microbes that cause water-related illnesses.
Sarah Mansergh, volunteer lab coordinator for Surfrider Santa Cruz, says: "Overall, we have some pretty clean beaches. The Los Angeles-based Heal the Bay has even rated Natural Bridges and Twin Lakes beaches as A+' for not exceeding recreational standards at all in their recent water quality report."

The picture is not perfect, however. Mansergh says: "A few other beach areas aren't as healthy. San Lorenzo river mouth, Cowell's Beach, Schwan Lake and Capitola Beach still routinely show elevated levels of indicator bacteria." Why point out these flaws? To get some help.

And help for impacted areas is on the way. Funding has been secured for a San Lorenzo River project to help preserve water quality when flows are low or non-existent, as well as the Rio del Mar Esplanade sewer replacement project. Those improvements should result in better water quality at area beaches.

Surfrider's water quality team has 12 volunteers who collect samples for examination at their lab. More volunteers participate in beach cleanups, storm drain stenciling, education programs and the chapter's "Wipe Out Plastic Takeout" campaign to reduce plastics in our waterways.

Mansergh says, "Visit our Web site for upcoming events and resources, and what you can do to keep our beaches healthy. You can also do plenty on your own like not dumping into storm drains, planting an ocean-friendly garden and keeping those plastic bags and cigarette butts out of our waterways."

The Surfrider Foundation has local chapters including San Mateo, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Monterey -- each with a water quality program. Go to , click "Chapters."

My next column: agriculture in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary's watersheds.

Dan Haifley i
s the executive director of O'Neill Sea Odyssey. He can be reached at