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Pet Waste and Virginia Water Quality

The purpose of this article is to summarize the effects of dog and pet waste on the quality of Virginia’s water.

When it rains, uncollected waste runs into streams and rivers as runoff.  In addition to worms and protozoa, pet waste also contains fecal coliform bacteria. This group of bacteria includes the specific bacteria E. Coli which can cause serious illness and even death to people who ingest contaminated water. There is a direct correlation between bacteria concentrations and gastrointestinal illness.

Fresh water is the source of many recreational and life-sustaining activities, including swimming, fishing, and of course, drinking! As a result, many communities across the country, including those in Virginia, work hard to keep their water clean and useable.  One of the most preventable and significant water pollutants is dog waste.  Each gram of dog poop contains 23 million fecal coliform colonies.  Unfortunately, many people do not pick up after their dog, and the uncollected waste eventually becomes part of storm water runoff and flows into and pollutes creeks, streams, and rivers.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the extent of pollution bodies of water are allowed to contain and still be usable.  This measure is referred to as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). TMDL is essentially a pollution budget which communities must live within. Communities found in violation of their allotted TMDL are subject to penalties. Pet waste is one of many contributors to TMDL and communities working to improve their waterways must manage its overall contribution.

Virginia  is required to develop water quality improvement plans for water that does not meet TMDL standards. In 1998, the American Canoe Association and the American Littoral Society filed a joint law suit against the EPA for not complying with clean water standards in the state of Virginia.

Both for legal and altruistic reasons, Virginia communities are working to develop plans to reduce the overall amount of dog poop in the state’s water. The section below provides summaries of how two communities in Virginia are taking steps to reduce the amount of dog waste in their environment.

Four Mile Run, Virginia

The Four Mile Run watershed includes portions of Arlington, VA, Fairfax County, the City of Alexandria, VA, and the City of Falls Church.  Dogs in the watershed are estimated to produce over 5,000 pounds of waste per day.  The watershed encompasses 19.7 square miles, is nine miles long and empties into the Potomac River.

Due to the dense population of people and dogs, water quality in the watershed has historically been very low. A study conducted between 1999 and 2001 determined that dog waste contributed 12.9% of all fecal coliform to the watershed. Waterfowl contributed 31.8%, while human waste accounted for 17.9%.

To help reduce the contribution of fecal coliform from dogs, the Technical Advisory Committee recommended building dog parks, enacting pooper scooper laws, and launching campaigns designed to educate the public about the importance of picking up after their pets.

These pet waste management efforts are making a difference.  In 1996, 43% of water samples taken at the Rt. 244 bridge exceeded TMDL standards.  In 2002, only 23% of samples failed to meet TMDL standards.

The complete TMDL study on the Four Mile Run, VA watershed can be found on the Virginia Department of Environmental Water Quality’s website.

Virginia Beach, Virginia

Virginia Beach, VA is located along the eastern shoreline.  The area has many inland canals and other waterways that run through the city. Each time it rains, these waterways quickly become polluted with storm water runoff that is contaminated with dog waste.  Scoop the Poop, Save the RiverDue to Virginia Beach’s proximity to the ocean, this dog poop-polluted water quickly empties into the Atlantic Ocean. According to the Virginia Beach SPCA, approximately 25% of all fecal coliform bacteria in the Lynnhaven River can be traced to pet waste.

In recognition of the environmental hazards presented by uncollected dog waste, the Virginia Beach SPCA and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department joined forces to create the Poop Pollutes Campaign. The Poop Pollutes campaign educates pet owners about the importance of picking up after their pets.  The success of the campaign lies in the belief that the more educated owners are, the more responsible they will be.  Poop Pollutes posters read, “Scoop the Poop, Save the River.”

Poop Pollutes Partners are also encouraged to post educational Poop Pollutes flyers in their neighborhood, as well as write articles for community newsletters explaining to residents why it is important to clean up what their dog leaves behind.

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