Lake Michigan Beach Clean Up Goes To The Dogs
There are only a handful of dogs in the world trained to find E. coli. Two are part of the Environmental Canine Services team, including Sable, pictured here. He is 8 years old and was adopted from a shelter then trained in this highly specialized skill. Sable located multiple sources of E. coli along the Galien River. Photo by Chris Kittredge, courtesy Environmental Canine Services.
At A Glance
- Since 2009 there have been 19 beach closings in Harbor Country due to E. coli contamination.
- The primary source of the E. coli is untreated human sewage from nearby homes with poor or nonexistent septic systems.
- The Conservation Fund is leading a large-scale effort to identify and fix the sources of the bacteria.
- The dogs specially trained to locate E. coli were all adopted from shelters.
- The dogs have found 17 sources of sewage along the Galien River.
"Using dogs to locate the sources of E. coli along the river has been nothing short of a miracle." — Peg Kohring, The Fund's Midwest Director.
There has been considerable federal, state, local and private investment in solving the E. coli contamination problem in southwestern Michigan, including funding from Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; Chikaming Open Lands; Weesaw Township; Berrien County Road Commission; City of New Buffalo; Berrien County Drain Commission; a citizen and local government steering committee; AEP; Pokagon Fund; Southwest Michigan Planning Commission; and Heart of Cook Foundation.
The white-sand beaches and charming Lake Michigan communities in southwest Michigan known as Harbor Country are popular weekend getaway destinations for many Chicagoans. But in the past four years, visitors to the beaches here have been turned away 19 times.
Unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria have been seeping into the Galien River and its watershed from nearby homes in Berrien County that have failing septic systems or, in the case of some older homes, no septic systems or sewage connections at all. The contaminated water travels down the river and into the lake, making the beaches unsafe for swimmers.
And here, closed beaches are more than just an inconvenience. The communities depend on tourism revenue from vacationers flocking to the beaches in the summer to support their local economy.
So why not just upgrade the septic systems? Many residents are unaware that their septic systems could be flowing directly into the Galien River and with septic upgrades costing thousands of dollars, it’s not an affordable option for many in the community.
An Effort The Size Of Lake Michigan
Since 2001, The Conservation Fund has been working with all levels of government, as well as private foundations and nonprofit organizations, to address the water quality issues in the area. The major effort has been focused on the Galien River Watershed, but in the last year, the focus has expanded to include the creeks and streams flowing into Lake Michigan.
Our Midwest Director, Peg Kohring, a native of Berrien County, is leading The Conservation Fund’ s large-scale effort to identify and fix the sources of water contamination. Among a team of biologists and scientists, we’re working with an unusual partner—a pair of furry, four-legged friends with a keen sense of smell. Specially trained dogs from Environmental Canine Services LLC are sniffing out the sources of E. coli faster and more accurately than traditional water testing methods. The canines have been a key part of the project and have helped us reduce the number of beach closings and eventually eliminate the threat to human health. Since 2011, the dogs have located 17 sources of sewage along the Galien, all within two miles of popular beaches. In 2013 there were no closings at these beaches due to high E. coli levels.
The dogs have been an incredibly efficient and cost-effective tool for locating sources of E. coli in the Galien River watershed. However, Peg notes that there is much more to be done, not only on the Galien River, but along 10 other streams as well. If you would like to support our Midwest team’s efforts to clean up southwest Michigan beaches and improve the quality of water for area residents, please contact Peg Kohring to find out how you can get involved or make a donation to the Fund.