Don’t Blame Animals Only for Pollution Problems

The waste collectively produced by farm animals, pets and wildlife in southern New England has an adverse impact on the region’s water quality. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

The waste collectively produced by farm animals, pets and wildlife in southern New England has an adverse impact on the region’s water quality. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

What is the true impact of pet and wildlife waste on southern New England waters?

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Several years ago, before Newport invested $6 million in an ultraviolet treatment system to reduce bacteria levels from stormwater discharged into Easton’s Beach, some local officials blamed raccoons and other Aquidneck Island animals for the pollution problems that plagued the popular swimming hole.

Raccoons, seagulls, wascally wabbits and assorted other wildlife certainly played a role in the beach’s frequent closings, but the problem was and still is more complicated than too much animal poop.

Land-use decisions, development and climate change all schemed to make closures at Easton’s Beach more common, especially after heavy rains, when enterococci bacteria levels would exceed limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Three years ago, Newport began the operation of its UV stormwater treatment plant on the Middletown line, across Memorial Boulevard from Easton’s Beach and the Atlantic Beach Club. The plant operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and kicks in when it measures a quarter-inch or more of rain. When that happens, stormwater runoff is funneled through UV lights, which kill the enterococci bacteria before they are flushed into the coastal waters across the street. Beach closings are down since the facility began operating.

Animal waste is certainly present in the runoff that is now being treated — and it was in the stormwater prior to May 2011 — but what is the true impact of pet and animal waste on southern New England’s water resources?

The region doesn’t have North Carolina’s huge hog farms or Iowa’s industrial-scale laying hen operations. Southern New England may not have any factory farms, but it does have plenty of farm animals and pets. And despite mankind’s best efforts, wild animals still roam the region.

Animal waste contains disease-causing pathogens, such as salmonella, E. coli and fecal coliform, which can be 10 to 100 times more concentrated than in human waste. More than 40 diseases can be transferred to humans through manure, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

There nearly 80 million dogs living in the United States, and Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut have their fair share of man’s best friend. The country’s dog population creates some 10 million tons of feces annually, polluting waterways when inconsiderate owners fail to clean up after them. It has been estimated that about 40 percent of dog owners don’t pick up their pet's waste.

The EPA considers dog waste an environmental pollutant, and in 1991, the federal agency placed it in the same category as oil and toxic chemicals. This waste also is included in the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. The longer dog waste stays on the ground, the greater the contamination becomes, according to the EPA.

Dog poop is 57 percent more toxic than human waste, and can harbor bacteria and parasites that cause illness in humans. It has been estimated that an ounce of dog waste can contain 650 million fecal coliform bacteria. The EPA has estimated that two to three days’ worth of dog poop from a neighborhood with about a hundred dogs would contribute enough bacteria to temporarily close a bay, and all watersheds within 20 miles of it, to swimming and shellfishing.

To put pet waste to use and to engage owners to do a better job of picking it up, the city of Cambridge, Mass., and MIT partnered with conceptual artist Matthew Mazzotta to create the Park Spark Project, which uses dog feces to power lampposts in a city park.

Pet owners collect their dogs’ waste in a special biodegradable bag and throw it into a “methane digester” — an air-tight cylindrical container, where the dog poop is broken down anaerobically. Methane is released through a valve and burned as fuel to power old-fashioned lampposts.

In 2011, the state Department of Health partnered with the University of Rhode Island to investigate the extent of pet waste at Rhode Island beaches. Data was collected from beach managers, the public and from water-quality analysts. In addition, URI students visited saltwater beaches throughout the state and evaluated each for pet use, visible pet waste, visitors’ perspectives and opinions regarding pets at the beach.

If pet waste was observed on a beach, water samples were collected and analyzed for the presence of E. coli bacteria — one in five of the beaches where pet waste was observed had elevated levels of E. coli. Results from the study were used in educational outreach materials that stress the importance of cleaning up after pets.

More than 100 people were polled at beaches throughout the state during this research project. Here are some of the survey's results: 82 percent of respondents said pet waste on the beach is a problem; 23 percent had seen or come across pet waste on the beach; 74 percent said pet waste on public beaches should be better regulated.

Dog waste often is found in catch basins, particularly in recent storm-system mapping done for Oakland Beach in Warwick.

But the thoughtless and lazy owners of some of our four-legged friends can’t be blamed for all the animal waste that makes its way into the region’s waters.

In July 2012, some 400 Canada geese at Roger Williams Park in Providence were captured and euthanized through a program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The meat was processed and distributed to soup kitchens in Massachusetts. The geese had become full-time park residents, and their population grew as a result of public feeding and a lack of predators.

This rapid growth of a permanent goose population impacted the park's environment, especially its centerpiece — a network of urban ponds. The park’s 100 acres of fresh water are polluted by the pound of waste each goose can generate daily. Nearly 20 percent of the ponds’ pollution problems are caused by the birds’ waste, according to studies.

The nutrients found in geese waste acts as fertilizer that causes algae to grow uncontrollably, which chokes life in the ponds and can be toxic to humans.

In fact, Rhode Island Department of Environmental (DEM) total maximum daily load (TMDL) reports have pinpointed birds as a significant source of bacteria in Roger Williams Park. The reports also have identified waste from geese, deer, mute swan, otter, rabbit, raccoon and dog as having a negative impact on Green Hill Pond in South Kingstown.

In the past three decades, however, much has been done to identify sources of animal waste and eliminate its impact. In 1994, for example, the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program and URI undertook a pollution source assessment in the Hardig Brook watershed.

Samples taken during three storms tested so high for fecal bacteria that researchers suspected a broken sewer line or a failing sewer pump station. Instead, they discovered that a Warwick dairy farm hadn’t sheltered its manure pile from runoff from the barn roof and property. The contaminated runoff flowed across the farm to a small tributary of Hardig Brook. Once there, the contaminants traveled downstream.

Reseachers helped the farm address the problem. In fact, many of the ways to reduce the impact of animal waste are fairly straightforward. Don’t feed wild ducks, geese, seagulls and other waterfowl. One bird dropping can contaminate 10,000 gallons of water. Feeding waterfowl can attract larger bird populations and may cause some birds to stop migrating, such as the Canada geese that took up residency in Roger Williams Park.

Plus, bread and other human food are bad for the birds’ digestive tracts.

The simplest thing you can do is pick up after your pets properly — don’t toss the bag into a storm drain or leave it on the ground in the woods.

But even if all pet owners put their dogs’ waste into a trash can, wildlife observers didn’t feed the animals and farm owners managed their manure stockpiles flawlessly, southern New England waters would still face pollution threats.

DEM’s Green Hill Pond TMDLs found pollution from failing septic systems a problem. In fact, failing septic systems and outdated cesspools are big sources of contamination.

Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) contain contaminated stormwater runoff, which would include pet and animal waste, and release untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris. CSOs are a major water pollution concern for the 772 U.S. cities that have such wastewater infrastructure, according to the EPA. Newport, for instance, has two CSO outfalls where overflows can happen during heavy rainfalls.

Besides bacteria from pet waste and waterfowl, common types of non-point source pollution include phosphorus and nitrogen from lawn and garden fertilizers and agricultural operations, oil and grease from parking lots and roadways, and sediment from construction activities and soil erosion.

“It is critical for the health of our lakes, streams and watersheds to eliminate water contaminants from all sources,” Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner David Cash said. “Clean lakes and streams mean thriving communities and healthy ecosystems.”