NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Just outside the Narragansett Community Center on Mumford Road, interested spectators gathered to observe a new tool to help keep a local waterway clean.
Thanks to a $10,000 grant from The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Narrow River Preservation Association, in partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, will work with Environmental Canine Services to help sniff out human sources of bacteria in Narrow River.
Now in its ninth year, Environmental Canine Services has carried out more than 70 projects in 14 states and has received samples for sniff tests from 11 different states. The dogs, which are exclusively rescues, go through an extensive, year-long training program.
“Both my husband and I have been professional dog trainers and been training dogs for over 25 years. They said, ‘So, let’s see if a dog can do it,’” founder Karen Reynolds said of the company. “So we piloted that, it worked out great, and we ended up opening our own company and started to do that.”
The dogs are trained to find sewage, Reynolds said.
“We train them on sewage, which contains bacteria ... and all the different things together ... ammonia, methane, etc., including detergents,” she said. “That’s what we train our dogs to do, and we work in all different environments all over the country.”
One of the benefits of using the dogs to sniff for waste is that they will never “trigger” on animal waste, Reynolds said.
“If it’s animal waste, they’ll walk right by it, but we actively train on this, so we get a lot of looks when we’re collecting samples,” she said.
Veronia Berounsky, vice president of the Narrow River Preservation Association, said the organization has participated in the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch program for 25 years and has seen improvements in water quality thanks to the efforts of South Kingstown and Narragansett. Two areas of particular interest, she said, have been Mumford Brook and Mettatuxet Brook.
“Since 1994, Narrow River’s been closed to shellfishing because of high bacteria levels, and DEM checks bacteria levels on a regular basis, but it’s not sufficiently improved enough to be opened to shellfishing because there are hot spots, and we’re trying to figure out where are the sources of bacteria,” she said.
With funding to investigate some of the sources, Berounsky said, they will be able to look at human sources of contamination and study some of the tributaries that tie into the Narrow River.
“The big question was, what are the human sources of bacteria? And one of the ways people do it is looking at DNA, but that’s a really costly method and you have to have a lot of remnants,” she said. “But we heard about the dogs because they had done a demonstration in Bristol three years ago, and so when Heidi [Travers of DEM] and I started talking about ways to do this ... we said, ‘We need the dogs to come, we want to know human sources.’ And it’s good science, nice dogs, and how do you top that?”
The demonstration involved 6-year-old lab mix Remi and 3-year-old Kai sniffing out a contamination source hidden by their handlers. As each dog found the source, they alerted the handlers to their find in different ways. Remi simply sat down by the piece of piping, while Kai, a little more excitable, jumped up on his handler, happily, before remembering his tell was to sit down and bark.
Seven certified teams cover the country, and another team is in training, Reynolds said.
“We’ve had this service, it’s wildly popular, and it’s for big watersheds that don’t know where their hot spots are. They can collect samples of the water from various parts of their watershed,” she said. “They usually ship to us in Maine, and we have our two dogs test the water samples, write down the results ... write down what the dogs say, and send them away and they make sense of where to pick hot spots to start.”
Narrow River went through that process in early May, when scientists from NRPA and RIDEM collected samples locally and sent them to Environmental Canine Services’ laboratory for analysis.
Environmental Canine Services is expected to issue a report in approximately 30 days detailing the findings and results of the inspection.
“The NRPA welcomes every opportunity to improve water quality in Narrow River to ensure the health of the public and the river,” Berounsky said in a press release, noting that the inspection was the first of its kind in Rhode Island.