Poop-sniffing dog found traces of human waste in Whatcom water samples

A dog brought to Whatcom County to sniff out human “poo”-llution in area waterways found it in the majority of water samples taken from 58 sites.

Crush, the sewage-sniffing dog, detected the presence of fecal coliform bacteria from people in 67 percent of those sites, according to Erika Douglas, a senior planner for Whatcom County Public Works Department who oversees water-quality monitoring.

The water samples went into bins. If Crush sniffed and stopped to lie down, that was a sign the water contained human waste.

The dog also did field investigations in which she walked along 11 areas in the county — a stretch of ditch or culverts, or stream sections — and had at least one alert in each area, indicating the presence of waste from humans.

Officials are analyzing the information, which was confirmed by a lab, and using it to help find where the contamination could be coming from and to prioritize cleanup.

Crush and her handler, Aryn Hervel, were in Whatcom County for two days in April to help narrow down a source of fecal coliform pollution flowing into streams and rivers and bays, threatening wildlife, fish, and shellfish beds.

Whatcom County Public Works coordinates testing of 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 it is in a sample. But it doesn’t reveal whether the waste is coming from people — from failing septic systems or sewer lines — or from pets, wildlife or poorly managed livestock.

There are tests that can identify whether the bacteria is coming from those specific sources, but they take more time and cost more than current methods.

Finding the source is necessary as a coalition of local and state governments, tribes, and other organizations continue efforts to clean up the water in Whatcom County. As of the end of 2015, about 80 percent of sites being tested were failing standards for fecal coliform bacteria.

That is where Crush and Hervel, who traveled from California, came in. The team is employed by Environmental Canine Services, whose dogs are trained to sniff out human sewage contaminating waterways. The company’s teams have worked in 10 states and more than 75 projects, including in Skagit and King counties.

Employing the team cost $6,000.

The dog sniffed samples taken from Birch Bay and Drayton Harbor watersheds, as well those that were part of the Nooksack watershed, including Fishtrap and Bertrand creeks.

The dog is among the approaches being used to evaluate what’s going on in the watersheds and to identify problems, Douglas said.

“This is one tool in the toolbox,” she said. “It, like many other tools, has limitations.”

While Crush can sniff out the presence of human waste, she can’t determine how much bacteria is in the water. Nor can the dog sniff out other sources, such as waste from wildlife or livestock.

Neither Crush nor other testing methods have been able to answer the question that Douglas is often asked: Do officials know how much of the fecal coliform pollution can be traced to, say, failing septics or livestock practices or wildlife?

“Unfortunately, no. It’s a question that I get frequently,” Douglas said. “It’s an answer we wish we had a ‘yes’ for.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea