BY LORAINE ANDERSON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY – Sable, a sewage-sniffing dog, came back to work last week in Grand Traverse County to help look for leaking septic tanks and possible illegal sewer connections in storm drains and culverts.
The German shepherd, handler Scott Reynolds and Watershed Center staffer Maureen McManus walked the entire east shoreline of Old Mission Peninsula for the first three days of the week and started along the west shore Thursday. Sable barks when his nose discovers human-sourced sewage or detergents.
Thee trio is part of a five-year program to improve water quality on area beaches.
During the recent checks, Sable found a few “areas of interest,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds and McManus made notes and recorded GPS locations. The Grand Traverse County Health Department will do follow-up and determine sources of the odors. Sable last came to Traverse City in 2010 and 2011 to sniff the city’s entire storm drain network for illicit sewer connections.
It’s been a good summer for the health department’s weekly water sampling and beach monitoring reports. E. coli bacteria counts in East and West bays have been low at most public beaches. The exception is Acme Bayside Park, which experienced a couple of temporary after-storm E. coli spikes on July 11 and Aug. 8.
Similar tests on three area inland lake public beaches registered even lower counts than bay beaches, said Tom Buss, environmental health director at the Grand Traverse County Health Department. This is the first year public beaches on three inland lakes have been included in the monitoring program. The beaches include Gilbert and Taylor parks on Long Lake, Twin Lakes County Park and Interlochen State Park on Duck Lake.
“It’s been a great summer for monitoring,” Buss said.
E. coli is a bacteria found in the digestive tracts of warm-blooded animals, including humans.
The health department’s beach monitoring program has been in place for several years at five public beaches: West End, Clinch, Bryant and Traverse City State Park. Acme Bayside Park was added last year.
Buss credited this summer’s low E. coli counts, in part, to the work of the regional Beach Monitoring Stakeholders Group formed in 2008 in response to public outcry over several beach closures and concerns about boaters and contamination in the bay.
Coalition members include local governments and agencies in Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Benzie counties.
Stakeholder actions since 2008 include:
* Increased sheriff marine boat patrols to ensure boat sewage and garbage wasn’t being dropped in the bays.
* A city ordinance amendment in March 2008 to ban bird and waterfowl feeding near waterways in city parks and the core downtown areas.
* Posting “No Dogs on Beaches” signs on city beaches
* Removal of a large mulberry tree along West Bay that attracted flocks of ducks and geese during berry season.
* Inspecting existing storm drains for illegal sewage connections, with Sable’s help and a robotic camera.
Last year, two Watershed Center grant projects — a $250,000 infiltration system at Bryant Park on West Bay and a $750,000 filtration pad at East Bay Park — helped reduce and clean storm-water runoff into the bays.
The elevated counts at the Acme public beach earlier this summer resulted in a health department “Level 2” public warning that the water was safe for wading, boats and fishing but not for body contact above the waist.
Warnings were lifted the next day after water sample tests showed E. coli counts had returned to normal lows.
The department posts its weekly 2013 public beach monitoring reports on East and West bays on its web site at: http://www.co.grand-traverse.mi.us/departments/health/Environmental_Health.htm