By JOHN T. WARD
The effort to solve the mystery of elevated bacteria levels in the Navesink River is now in the paws of real experts.
Two dogs trained to bark when they smell fecal coliform with a “human signature” have been working the waterfront in Red Bank and Fair Haven in recent days, helping environmentalists and officials source-track fecal coliform contamination, which spikes whenever it rains.
On Wednesday night, the four-footed detectives came to Riverview Medical Center to show several dozen onlookers how it’s done.
Asking the audience to imagine the rows and aisles between chairs in a conference room as streets and avenues with sewer grates and manholes, the wife-and-husband team of Karen and Scott Reynolds, of Maine-based Environmental Canine Services, led two dogs on a hunt for bacteria-tinged wads of gauze that had been hidden in the fifth-floor meeting room beforehand.
The dogs, named Sable and Remi, found all the samples, and were rewarded with treats and a squeaky toy.
The ECS team was brought to the Greater Green by a coalition of environmental groups led by Clean Ocean Action that bills itself as the Rally for the Navesink. The dogs have spent the past three days in Red Bank and Fair Haven, working their way along storm sewer routes from outfalls at the river’s edge back to possible sources of contamination.
Water samples are taken from sewers and manholes when the working sniffs bark to indicate they’ve found fecal coliform of possible human origin.
“It only takes a couple of seconds for us to know, and we can move very quickly up that system,” Scott Reynolds told the audience, which included elected officials from both towns.
The sniffing team planned to work the waterfront in Middletown on Thursday.
The olfactory power of the canines is being used to supplement river sampling before, during and after “precipitation events,” and subsequent DNA analysis of those samples, in an effort to sort out human from animal waste in order to narrow the search for sources.
“I was surprised at the number of indicators” of apparent human waste the dogs found” in his town, Mayor Ben Lucarelli told redbankgreen. That doesn’t necessarily mean human waste is present, however, he said, noting that traces of kitchen grease, toothpaste and other substances can prompt the dogs to bark.
In his town, the dogs gave positive responses along Fourth Creek. Lucarelli said the source may be a dumpster outside a restaurant, “but it’s not fair to say until we get the sample results back.”
Tim Doutt, an official with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, told the audience that “illicit discharges” from homes in the Navesink watershed can’t be ruled out as culprits in the river’s contamination.
Illegal connections of bathroom waste pipes to municipal storm sewers are “not only not unheard-of, but completely common,” he said.