Canines Assist in Water-Quality Research

Canines Assist Bren Water-Quality Researchers in Tracking Santa Barbara Storm Drain Pollutants

Dogs have a powerful sense of smell and aren’t picky about where they put their snouts. Those canine qualities are being leveraged this month as the water-quality research group operated out of Bren professor Patricia Holden’s lab enlists a pair of trained dogs to conduct field work intended to identify the source of human pollution in local storm drains.

The two dogs, Sable and Logan, will assist Holden, staff research associate Laurie Van De Werfhorst, associate researcher Dr. Bram Sercu, and Bren School PhD student Ngoc Hoang as they search for DNA-based markers of human contamination in water samples taken from local storm drains. 

The dogs are part of a novel private-public partnership in environmental forensics, made possible through funding from the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) secured by water resources specialist Dr. Jill Murray of the City of Santa Barbara Creeks Restoration and Water Quality Improvement Division.

Sable and Logan are owned by Scott and Karen Reynolds of ECS LLC and have been trained specifically to respond to sewage in the environment. The project is a first-of-its-kind trial to see how well trained canines respond to contamination scents in surface and drainage waters, and to understand how their responses compare to DNA-based, as well as conventional microbiological and chemical water-quality assays.

“Over several years of sampling and analyzing surface waters and dry-weather drainage—all of which flow directly to the beach areas in Santa Barbara—my group has discovered human contamination in storm drains, i.e. civil infrastructure that should be mainly dry in the summer months,” says Holden. “Yet, the exact origins, as well as the variability of the contamination over time and space, remain elusive. DNA-based assays and other similarly sensitive laboratory assays are expensive and time-consuming, and are therefore best used where they can help to solve a problem at its source. Depending on the results of this research, it is possible that communities might turn to canines as a cost-effective first step before designing more-detailed research and monitoring programs. While dogs can't convey amounts of pollutants, they appear to be very useful in screening for and identifying the presence of contaminants, and that could lead to more focused investigations."

The results of the study will be released later in summer.