Trained dogs are helping solve Michigan’s algal bloom problems
Aren’t dogs the best? They’ll greet you at the door like you’ve been gone for years, even if it’s been only half an hour. They’ll motivate you to get your steps in by begging for a walk, but they’re just as happy lazing with you on the couch. Some say they help reduce heart disease by lowering your blood pressure and relieving stress.
And this summer, they’re helping to improve the quality of Michigan’s water.
“As far as I know, we’re the only company in the world working with dogs to do this kind of work,” said Karen Reynolds, co-owner of Environmental Canine Services, which is now based in Otisfield, Maine, but has Michigan roots. “There’s no better tool for what we do than a dog’s nose.”
And job No. 1 for Reynolds’ canine crews is … well … finding No. 2.
Faster, better water testing
Reynolds and her husband, Scott, travel nationwide using their trained dogs to identify the presence of human sewage in stormwater systems and surface waters. Or, to put it bluntly, to distinguish between human and animal excrement.
“Our dogs can scent-test a water source in minutes, if not seconds, and track the source of contamination in a fraction of the time it would take traditional testing systems. And it’s also considerably more cost-effective,” she said.
Once one of their dogs determines the presence of human waste, it “alerts,” or lets its handler know, usually by sitting, lying down or barking. The dogs can then lead investigators to the problem in real time.
Distinguishing between human and animal waste is important because each necessitates vastly different solutions. In the past, DNA testing was the most accurate method, but it is much more costly and could take weeks or even months to determine the source.
“And for the dogs, it’s fun,” Reynolds said. “They really love to work.”
Finding a CLEAR solution
The Reynoldses founded Environmental Canine Services in 2009 in Lansing but have since relocated their headquarters to Maine. Today, the company has dog and handler teams based in Maine, Michigan and California.
Clients usually retain the canine crews to help solve problems such as E. coli contaminations and algal blooms, which are fed in part by phosphorus, a naturally occurring element found in both human and animal waste, as well as fertilizer. The algal blooms that have been appearing on Lake Erie in recent years are fed by nutrients, like phosphorus, that arrive via local waterways. More nutrients result in more algae growth, and as that algae decomposes, it pulls oxygen out of the system, creating the hypoxia, or “dead zone,” where fish can’t live because the oxygen has been depleted.
In 2015, the company conducted successful field investigations on the S.S. LaPointe Drain and Luna Pier in Monroe County, adjacent to Lake Erie, after excess levels of E. coli, phosphorus and sediment were found to be impairing water quality there. In July, the dogs will sniff into recurring algal bloom problems on a private lake in Hillsdale County, one of six southeastern Michigan counties that make up the Western Lake Erie Basin.
The other Michigan counties in the basin are Jackson, Lenawee, Monroe, Washtenaw and Wayne. That region is the geographic focus of work by the Michigan Cleaner Lake Erie through Action and Research Partnership, known as MI CLEAR, a coalition of environmental and agricultural leaders, conservationists, universities and other concerned groups aiming to improve Lake Erie and the long-term water quality in that region.
‘Michigan’s waterways are all tied together’
“Algal blooms are complex issues that can have multiple things contributing to them, so getting to the bottom of the problem can be incredibly tricky,” said Monroe County Drain Commissioner David P. Thompson. “MI CLEAR is changing that. It’s going further than anything I’ve seen so far toward trying to solve this problem. It’s encouraging to see that level of cooperation.”
Thompson is part of the MI CLEAR team, which is examining factors including agricultural practices, industrial pollution, stormwater runoff, outdated wastewater facilities, climate change, invasive species and overall municipal infrastructure as part of developing a holistic solution to Lake Erie’s algal blooms.
Experts say if the algal bloom problems in Lake Erie are going to be remedied, it’s going to take the work of many entities working together.
“Michigan’s waterways are all tied together, so contamination in any part of it has the potential to affect other parts of it, even miles away,” Thompson said.
More information on MI CLEAR is available at facebook.com/miclearpartnership.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.