FAIR HAVEN – Two years ago approximately 500 acres of the Navesink River were deemed unfit for the harvesting of shellfish due to heightened levels of fecal pollution.
The report moved Fair Haven Mayor Benjamin Lucarelli to investigate methods to clean the waterway, including a partnership with local environmental group Clean Ocean Action, who offered a furry solution to the concerning pollution.
Cindy Zipf, Clean Ocean Action executive director, contacted Karen Reynolds, president of Environmental Canine Services (ECS), whose team of trained dogs has made it their duty to sniff out the fecal matter that remains in the river and other bodies of water around the country.
According to Lucarelli, in 2016 local and state scientists ridiculed the notion of dogs providing any sort of benefit in the impacted area.
“At first, when these dogs first came in, I gotta tell ya’, the Ph.D.s at Rutgers (University) and the (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) really poo-pooed the idea,” Lucarelli said with a grin during a Nov. 29 press conference near the borough’s public boat launch, with canine investigators Remi and Kai in attendance.
Despite the disdain for this puppy approach, Lucarelli said the results were overwhelmingly positive.
“When they saw the dogs in action everyone was really amazed. It cut the amount of samples it would take to pinpoint the source of the contaminants from hundreds down to dozens. And that sped up the time frame in which the source could be identified and mitigated,” Lucarelli added.
Two River Water Reclamation Authority (TRWRA), the regional wastewater service provider for municipalities in and around the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers, has worked in conjunction with Clean Ocean Action to mitigate fecal contaminants in the area.
Michael A. Gianforte, TWRA executive director, said his organization had to endure the taunts from industry peers in order to what was best for the community.
“When you invest millions of dollars in technology to locate these sources of pollution and then you find a different method using dogs, we expected to hear the ridicule. But it was something we were willing to deal with because it worked and it was in the best interest of the community,” Gianforte said.
Zipf credits Gianforte and TRWRA for remaining supportive of the program in the face of judgmental critics.
“What I love about working in this area on behalf of water quality is that everyone is so passionate about it and is so protective of the remarkable gifts and resources we have. They’re willing to create partnerships and protect those alliances and think outside the box and try new things. They’re willing to try anything to improve and protect what we have,” Zipf said.
Founded in 2009, Reynolds said her dogs are trained in a similar fashion to a police department’s drug and arson detection canine officers.
“It’s all about giving them the scent of something we want them to track down and identify and associating it with something they really love, so they think it’s just the greatest smell on earth…even if it is sewage,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said the dogs are introduced to sites like manholes, catch basins, storm drain ditches and a multitude of other environments.
They can even operate in both salt water and fresh water while stationed in a boat, but it’s the accuracy of their efforts that is truly extraordinary.
According to Reynolds, a research study published by scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2010 showed the dogs – different canines by the names of Sable and Logan – produced no false negative results.
“In terms of the alerts, Logan had a very sensitive nose and was 100 percent accurate during testing. Our other dog Sable was about 86 percent accurate, but you have to factor in that if the scent was too strong and too much for him, he was out of there. It was just too smelly for him,” Reynolds said.
This article was first published in the Feb. 28-March. 6, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.
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