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Stepping In It

What's the real eco-scoop on dog poop?


A new interpretive sign near Blanchard Beach in Burlington's Oakledge Park tells a cautionary cartoon tale about E. coli infection. A father and his daughter stand near the lakeshore, oblivious to their dog pooping behind them. The father is also clearly stupid. Time passes; it rains; and a park ranger samples water near the path where the dog did its thing. The ranger posts a "Beach Closed" sign and yet the father returns and he and his daughter venture into the lake anyhow. They both end up in bed, green and with a fever. One wonders why the father isn't charged with child endangerment.

The sign is part of Burlington's two-year-old Scoop the Poop educational campaign, an effort financed through the Burlington Eco Info Project, the Burlington Neighborhood Project and the University of Vermont School of Natural Resources. "We try to connect people's behavior with the environment," explains Justin Barnard, an AmeriCorps*VISTA. "We want to show that dog poop does have an effect on water quality."

Each gram of dog-doo, the sign says, contains more than 20,000,000 E. coli colonies. There are nearly 2000 licensed dogs in Burlington. You do the math. A newsletter distributed last fall also took humorous pot shots at dogs, with a headline that read: "E. coli and beach closings: Fido still a suspect!" and referring to canines as "E. coli Bandits." The message of both the sign and the newsletter is that the stool left behind by Samoyeds, span-iels and sheepdogs causes beach closings. It's easy to blame what's smelly and underfoot. Is the accusation accurate, or is it a load of D, er, BS?

Blanchard Beach has been closed to swimmers since 1991. The area was initially shut due to bacterial contamination and remains so today. It's hard to tell whether or not dog waste is the culprit. Certainly, a decade ago, Burlington didn't see as much dog activity as it does now, according to Susan O'Kane, executive director of the Humane Society of Chittenden County. And Burlington's waste-treatment system had problems until a 1995 overhaul, when illicit connections of houses to the sewer system were discovered and corrected.

"If it was a sewer problem [now], though, we'd see high levels of contamination even in dry weather," explains Steve Roy, project engineer for Burlington's Department of Public Works. "Dog poop is our best guess for now."

Though the large interpretive signs will be posted along the waterfront, pollution is not just a park problem. Englesby Brook, which dumps out at Blanchard Beach, carries contaminants from streets, parking lots and lawns directly into the lake. The Englesby Brook watershed extends nearly a square mile, from UVM's Redstone campus to the Burlington Country Club, encompassing much of the Hill Section neighborhood, south to a bit beyond Home Avenue, and east down Flynn Avenue to the lake. For folks who live within the district, washing a car in one's driveway, over-fertilizing the lawn or leaving dog poop in one's own back yard can negatively affect the water quality of the lake.

E. coli isn't canine-specific. The organism is found in the intestines of all warm-blooded animals, and some types of the bacteria are actually helpful to the human digestive process. "They're not designed to live in water," explains Mary Watzin, director of the Rubenstein Ecosystem Lab and a professor in UVM's School of Natural Resources. "They can live for only several days or so. Although some research has shown they can live in the sediment at the bottom of the lake for longer, when it's warm."

After a rainstorm, run-off can cause E. coli levels in the lake to rise. Working through the Green Mountain Power-funded Burlington Bay Project, Watzin and her team have been sampling water from six sites along the Burlington lakeshore for the past three years, measuring contaminants like phosphorous and also monitoring E. coli levels. "E. coli is not necessarily harmful, but it's a good indicator that other things that are harmful to humans are there," she explains. "They all travel together."

Though there are no national or state regulations that say how much E. coli is too much, Vermont's water resources board recommends no more than 77 organisms per 100 milliliters -- about half a cup -- of water sampled. Higher than that, and the likelihood of swimmers experiencing gastrointestinal illness from swallowing lake water increases greatly.

Burlington's Department of Public Works tests samples from city beaches twice a week. But the tests only tell whether E. coli is present; they can't distinguish between the thousand or so strains of the bacteria or determine the source of contamination. In fact, the only way to tell where the E. coli in the lake comes from is to determine the genetic profile of excrement from various animals and match it to the bacteria in the water.

Last year, the town of Colchester took on a preliminary profiling project, funded by the EPA and done in conjunction with the University of New Hampshire. During the summer, water samples got collected from various town beaches. Then, one lucky person backtracked up a number of streams, collecting and identifying animal scat along the way. Water and waste were sent to UNH for analysis.

"We were experimenting with microbial source tracking, trying to determine whether an MST program could be developed for the town," says Bryan Osborne, Colchester's director of public works. "We were mostly testing the technology, not looking for a smoking gun."

The test results did indicate that bird E. coli was a major source of pollution. "We realized that the lakeside docks [where birds gather] might be part of our problem, so we removed the docks," says town manager Al Voegele. The town hasn't been able to continue DNA testing this year, though, so it's unclear whether fewer docks has translated into less E. coli.

If you think about this shit long enough, you can't help but get grossed out. Bacteria and viruses live in and among us all the time, of course. But even so... yuck. Plus, if you figure the couple thousand dogs in the city do their thing twice a day, that's 4000 daily piles of poop, or nearly 1.46 millions loads each year.

Whether or not dog manure is responsible for beach closings, there are plenty of arguments for scooping the poop. "It's very important for so many reasons," says the Humane Society's Susan O'Kane. "Dog waste can spread disease and it's smelly."

Dog BMs may also harbor viruses that make other dogs sick, or worm larvae that can infect humans, explains veterinarian Gary Sturgis of Animal Housecalls in Essex. "The eggs have to be on the ground for a little while to be infectious, probably at least a week," he says. "If you pick up, you greatly reduce the risk."

Plus, leaving dog poop behind doesn't exactly endear you to your neighbor. Jason Baker, who lives in Burlington's Old North End, got involved in the Scoop the Poop campaign because he cares about his neighborhood and the environment. "There did seem to be an epidemic of dog feces everywhere," Baker says. "One of my interests is that it's against the law, so why do people think they can get away with it?"

Working with Eco Info staff, a small group of Burlington residents first approached the Burlington Police Department and asked them to enforce existing pooper-scooper laws. But the response wasn't what they'd expected. "They weren't that helpful, which is a shame, really," says Baker. "Why have laws if we don't enforce them?"

Picking up after your dog, Baker points out, is part of being a good neighbor and a good steward of the lake. "If you own a dog, you're responsible for anything that goes in or comes out of your dog."

A restoration project of Englesby Brook is currently underway, says Steve Roy. The effort includes the creation of stormwater treatment ponds at numerous points along the brook. These systems will destroy bacteria by holding them in one area long enough for ultraviolet rays to kill them.

Of course, a better way to combat lake pollution is to reduce the source to begin with. It's impossible to control the gifts left by non-domestic animals, but "If everybody picked up after their dogs, things would be better," Roy says. "Even if we can get a 10 or 20 percent decrease, we'll see improvement.