Addressing The Poop Problem

September 6, 2016
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A sign directing the public to dog-waste bags in the Claypit Creek section of Hartshorne Woods Park, Middletown.

A sign directing the public to dog-waste bags in the Claypit Creek section of Hartshorne Woods Park, Middletown.

Story and photos by Joseph Sapia

Some think the Navesink River is going to the dogs – and that is what the American Littoral Society is trying to prevent.

In the last week or so, the Sandy Hook-based coastal environmental group has distributed fliers in the Navesink River area with a cuddly dog pictured, saying “Cute Pooch. But Is His Poo Polluting Your River?”

The American Littoral Society is asking people to pick up after their dogs and – “if possible,” as the flier says – flush the feces in a toilet. The idea is a simple way to keep fecal bacteria, which has been showing up in the river in high concentrations, from polluting the Navesink.

“The goal is to get it out of the environment and treat it like all other waste,” said Tim Dillingham, ALS’s executive director. “We’re hoping people share the information with their neighbors, fellow dog owners.”

“People should pick up,” said Stacey Thermos, 40, whose family has a dog, whose droppings are bagged in plastic and put out with the garbage.

Thermos and her immediate family divide their time between Fair Haven, where she grew up on the Navesink River, and Greece.

“In Greece, you go far out (in the water) and see all the way down,” Thermos said. “Here, you can’t see. I’m very phobic of the water.”

In the last decade or so, the Navesink River has experienced depleted oxygen levels and high fecal bacteria counts. Suspected pollution threats include human, domestic animal, farm animal and wildlife waste; fertilizers and pesticides; and petroleum products in the 95-square-mile watershed.

Jimmy Cai, 40, a Millburn resident who was crabbing on the Navesink River on a recent day, also agreed people should pick up properly after their dogs. He said “if there is pollution, a law or policy” should be in place to stop it.

“It’s an education effort,” said Dillingham, speaking of the fliers. “It’s about raising awareness.”

Cecily Wirsching cleans up after her dog, Luna. Wirsching was walking her dog in the Claypit Creek section of Hartshorne Woods Park, Middletown.

Cecily Wirsching cleans up after her dog, Luna. Wirsching was walking her dog in the Claypit Creek section of Hartshorne Woods Park, Middletown.

There has been an increase in advocacy for the river this summer, centered around the “Rally for the Navesink,” a push fostered by another Sandy Hook-based environmental group, Clean Ocean Action (COA).

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In such places as McCarter Park in Fair Haven and Hartshorne Woods Park in Middletown, signs direct people to plastic bags to properly dispose of dog poop. And those interviewed by The Two River Times agree with picking up after a dog.

But what about flushing the droppings down the toilet?

“It gets treated like the rest of the waste,” said Dillingham, noting the plastic bag carrying the waste should be properly disposed of in the garbage.

Convincing people to flush dog waste may not be that easy.

“You’re not going to take it home,” said Cecily Wirsching, 72, who was walking her dog – Luna, a 15-year-old female Japanese spitz – in the Claypit Creek section of Hartshorne Woods. “That’s a bit much.”

Wirsching, who splits her time between Atlantic Highlands and Nepal, deposits Luna’s poop in the garbage.

The ALS flier acknowledges people may be hesitant to flush the waste.

“If you can’t get yourself to do that, throw it in the garbage,” the flier says. “That’s better than having it flow into the river.”

Simply moving dog feces off a trail, sidewalk or grassy area is not helping the pollution issue, according to those concerned about the health of the Navesink River.

“(That) doesn’t help its impact on the river,” Dillingham said. “It’s still in the environment.”

“Lots of people scoop their dog’s poop and then drop the baggies in the storm water drain,” said Pim Van Hemmen, ALS’s assistant director. “That doesn’t help matters, because that drain will take the dog poop right to the river.

A sign directing the public to dog-waste glove-bags in McCarter Park, Fair Haven.

A sign directing the public to dog-waste glove-bags in McCarter Park, Fair Haven.

“Leaving it on the lawn in your backyard is also a problem,” Van Hemmen said. “Others scoop the poop and drop the baggies somewhere along the trail – there is usually a sizable pile in Fair Haven Fields, which is also not a good idea,”

Some also did not think dog feces was a major contributor to pollution in the Navesink River.

“I think the amount of dogs that are in the vicinity of the Navesink River, it’s so minute,” said Nick Ciaccia, 41, of Middletown. “To say they contribute to it is a ridiculous concept. I think the issue is deeper than that.”

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Ciaccia was with his dog, Abbey, a rescued 4-year-old, female pit bull-Labrador retriever mix, in the Claypit Creek section of Hartshorne Woods. Ciaccia bags Abbey’s droppings and throws them in the garbage.

Morgan Bardall, 30, of Fair Haven said people normally pick up after their dogs. Bardall said he thinks of dog poop as fertilizer. He said there probably should be a bigger concern for fertilizers and pesticides used at residences in the watershed.

“You can see these massive homes here, they more than definitely use fertilizers and pesticides,” Bardall said.

Bardall’s father, Ken, 73, also of Fair Haven, said passing out the fliers might be a “waste of time,” because there are not that many dogs in the watershed.

But initial reports suggest dog waste is a “surprisingly big” problem in the Navesink River watershed, Dillingham said. According to the flier, a dog’s yearly poop output contains 1.9 trillion fecal coliforms.

“I didn’t understand how toxic dog waste is,” Van Hemmen said. “We’re trying to get everybody involved and thinking why water quality is so poor.”

The fliers have the support of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“These fliers educate the public on why there are laws regarding cleaning up after pets, that they are a source of bacterial contamination during runoff from storms,” said Bob Considine, a DEP spokesman. “Education and public awareness is going to be a big part of the approach to improving water quality in the Navesink. So we’re happy American Littoral Society is passing out the fliers.”

What percentage of fecal waste is attributable to dogs versus human, wildlife, other domestic animal and farm animal waste is unknown, according to ALS and COA.

Later this month, COA will be using dogs to sniff and detect human waste in water in the Navesink River watershed.

“They’re 70 to 100 percent accurate (on detecting human waste), an impressive record,” said Cindy Zipf, COA’s executive director. “And it’s instantaneous.”

As for the dog waste, dealing with it is an easy matter – “Picking up dog waste doesn’t cost anything,” Van Hemmen said.

“This is not nature making it dirty,” said Van Hemmen, speaking of the river. “It is us making it dirty.”

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