In a parking lot at Bender Fields earlier this week, 8-year-old Crush trotted from bin to bin filled with water taken from streams and creeks around Lynden and Ferndale.
At three of the first four bins that she sniffed Thursday, April 28, Crush stopped to lay down — a sign that the water inside contained human waste.
The dog and her handler, Aryn Hervel, were in Whatcom County for two days ending Friday to help narrow down a source of fecal coliform pollution flowing into streams and rivers and down into bays, threatening wildlife, fish and shellfish beds.
On Thursday, the focus was on the Nooksack watershed.
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On Friday, Crush smelled water samples taken from the Birch Bay and Drayton Harbor watersheds.
She has an extremely sensitive nose.
Aryn Hervel, handler of Crush
The dog, wearing a vest that read “do not pet,” would sniff about 80 samples on Thursday alone. She is trained to alert Hervel to the presence of human waste.
Dog is faster, less expensive
Whatcom County Public Works coordinates testing for about 90 sites in the county, either monthly or weekly, for the presence of fecal bacteria.
Testing being done now can tell if the bacteria, which can sicken people, is there and how much of the bacteria is in that sample. But it doesn’t reveal whether the waste is coming from people — from failing septic systems or sewer lines — or from animals via poor livestock management, pets and wildlife.
“It doesn’t tell us the sources,” said Aneka Sweeney, education and outreach coordinator with Whatcom Conservation District.
There are tests that can identify sources, but they take more time and more money than current methods.
Finding the source is necessary as a coalition of local and state governments, the tribes, and other organizations continue efforts to clean up the water in Whatcom County. As of December, about 80 percent of sites being tested were failing standards for fecal coliform bacteria.
And that is where Crush and Hervel, who traveled from California, come in. The team is employed by Environmental Canine Services, whose dogs are trained to sniff out human sewage contaminating waterways.
“This is a fast and cost-effective screening method to use dogs to do it,” said Karen Reynolds, president of Environmental Canine Services.
All of the water samples flagged by Crush will be sent to a certified lab to be tested for bacteria
The company’s teams have worked in 10 states and more than 75 projects, Reynolds said.
It’s the first time a sewage-sniffing dog has been employed in Whatcom County, at a cost of $6,000, but Crush has been used in Skagit County for three years as part of its Clean Samish Initiative.
“This is a tool we’re using,” said Erika Douglas, a senior planner for Whatcom County Public Works who oversees water quality monitoring.
Crush can identify even trace amounts of human sewage.
“She has an extremely sensitive nose,” Hervel said.
As a control, horse and sheep wastewater also were put into bins that Crush sniffed on Thursday, as well as samples that contained the presence of detergent and coffee.
All of the water samples flagged by Crush will be sent to a certified lab to be tested for bacteria. Officials will then use the information to try to identify where the contamination could be coming from and get it cleaned up.