AUGUSTA — Sable, an 8-year-old shepherd mix adopted from an animal shelter, has a nose for sniffing out trouble.
Sable’s nose that knows has taken the dog and its handler, Scott Reynolds, co-owner of Environmental Canine Services, across the country, sniffing out human sewage in water where it doesn’t belong. The dog is more efficient and effective than traditional, human-dependent methods, helping communities clean up their lakes, rivers and beaches.
On Tuesday, the pair were at the Maine Water and Sustainability Conference, at the Augusta Civic Center. Reynolds explained the dog’s sniffing skills and how they are used. Several hundred people who work with or are interested in water resources and environmental sustainability attended the conference.
“He’s a human-sewage-detecting dog,” said Reynolds, of Michigan, who is starting a branch of his business in the Portsmouth, N.H., area to serve the Northeast. “He’s a lot faster than traditional methods.”
When he’s not working, Sable enjoys snuggling on the couch, howling with coyotes, sleeping, and barking at cats; but he’s always ready and excited to work. Reynolds said Sable loves sniffing out human waste so much he is disappointed when, as was the case Tuesday, his green work vest is placed on him but they go to a speaking engagement, not a sniffing assignment. Reynolds believes Environmental Canine Services is the only such service in the country.
Sable and his co-worker Logan, a collie mix, track down human waste, which is helpful when human sources of bacteria are hurting water quality but it’s not known where the human waste is coming from. They search out human waste specifically and signal when they find it. Sable barks; Logan sits.
They help sniff out leaks from sewer systems into stormwater systems and from septic systems into water bodies.
Reynolds said more traditional methods of finding bacteria sources rely on sending potentially contaminated soils to a laboratory, which takes at least 24 hours to test the samples and, even then, can’t always tell whether the waste that was the source of the bacteria was human or animal.
Reynolds said Sable has been working as a sniffer for five or six years. He said training him took about a year, and using methods similar those use to train bomb- or drug-sniffing dogs.
In Maine, the dogs and Reynolds have worked in Portland and Kittery, working with FB Environmental, which has offices in Portland and Portsmouth.
Reynolds and Sable were among the more popular vendors at Tuesday’s conference, which organizers said has grown to become one of the largest environment-related conferences in Maine.
This year the conference, founded in 1994 by the Senator George J. Mitchell Center at the University of Maine as the Maine Water Conference, added “Sustainability” to its name and focus, reflecting its broader mission.
“Water problems are never just water problems,” Mitchell Center Director David Hart said, in explaining why sustainability was added to the conference title and focus. “If we hope to solve these problems, you have to look at water and many other things.”
Conference sessions topics included the effect of water withdrawals on water supply and quality, lake management strategies, Maine’s energy future, climate-related trends, safe beaches and shellfish beds, and management approaches for sustainable urban streams.
Robert Kates, a senior research associate at Harvard University and professor of sustainability science at the University of Maine, described how the science of sustainability can lead to action that is good for both the environment and society. Kates, a winner of the National Medal of Science, said knowledge can result in action when those involved take four steps: identify a problem, create knowledge about the problem, find a solution and take action.
Kates, who is studying climate change and the vulnerability of culverts not designed to handle the amount of water flow from major storms testing them now, said a recent survey of town managers indicated culverts were at the top of the list of things they thought their towns would need help adapting to climate change.
He said large storms that historically occurred once every 100 years, the yardstick used between 1950 and 1979, now occur more often, at an interval of once every 60 years.
Kates said tools including rain mapping and other scientific data can be used to plan what size culverts could be needed in a spot for the next 50 years.
Mark Borsuk, associate professor in the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, spoke on “Gambling with the Globe: The Role of Risk in Decision-Making for Sustainability.”
Borsuk said scientists should include the risks associated with climate change as they report on the issue, so people, most of whom are naturally risk-averse, understand what’s at stake if they decide to do nothing about a problem.
He said most people recognize the risks of climate change, yet policymakers are reluctant to take action to address climate change because of its complexity and uncertainty.
He said protecting against severe consequences is a basic principle of sustainability, and if there is a risk of such consequences, if people are aware of those risks, they will be more likely to take action or precautionary measures — even in the face of uncertainty about those consequences. Borsuk noted there will always be some level of uncertainty in models trying to predict the future of the climate.
Borsuk used a Yogi Berra quote to help explain: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Keith Edwards — 621-5647 [email protected] Twitter: @kedwardskj