August 18 2016

Victory: A Leap Forward in Public Health Protection at Hawaii Beaches

by Mara Dias

After years of advocacy by the Kaua'i Chapter of Surfrider, the Hawaii Department of Health (HDOH) has posted signs warning beachgoers of polluted waters near Waiopili Stream at Mahaulepu Beach in Kaua’i. The signage comes after an order from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to post signs by the coastal waters at Mahaulepu and at any beach where state water quality standards are not being met.  

Surfrider has been campaigning for the HDOH to post warning signs at chronically polluted coastal streams and beaches after test results from Kaua’i Chapter’s Blue Water Task Force, its citizen-science water quality monitoring program, revealed overwhelming evidence of severe contamination of several coastal streams. These streams are recreational spots favored by families with children where they flow across the beach and discharge into the ocean. Despite the Kaua’i Chapter's overwhelming evidence of severe contamination and the potential health risk, the HDOH had repeatedly refused Surfrider’s requests to post signs at the beach and there was no visible warning of the polluted conditions at the beach.

In a strongly worded letter sent July 25th from EPA Region 9 to HDOH’s Clean Water Branch, the EPA says HDOH must post warning signs alerting the public of polluted coastal waters in the state.

The EPA’s letter is not limited to concerns over posting at Waiopili Stream, but also expressed a desire to discuss HDOH’s public notification policies statewide and to engage with the state on how they can better use water quality data generated by citizen science groups such as the Blue Water Task Force for enhanced public health protection at the beach. 

In response, HDOH posted signs at Mahaulepu beach last Thursday, August 5.

Signs were also posted on Thursday at Keehi Lagoon where Saturday's Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association State Championship took place this weekend after clubs questioned the water quality after a brown water advisory was issued. Many clubs withdrew from the race as they were uncomfortable with the bacteria levels. Like the athletes participating in the Olympic rowing, sailing and open water swimming events in Rio, competitors in the championship at Keehi Lagoon were advised to take precaution by wearing waterproof booties, covering their water bottles and rinsing off post race with clean fresh water.

Surfrider is happy to have an ally in the EPA and looks forward to working with the HDOH in the coming months to ensure HDOH complies with the BEACH Act and this EPA directive, and promptly posts pollution warning signs at polluted beaches around the state. The children and families who recreate at these beaches deserve it.

We’re relieved that after all this time, we are at a turning point, and the beach-going public will finally have the information they need to know whether it is safe to get into the water or not. It’s our hope that HDOH will begin putting up warning signs on the beaches when they issue Brown Water Advisories because of heavy rains and flash flooding washing pollutants, including feces, into the ocean. This is a victory for all of the volunteers of our Blue Water Task Force program who will continue to inform the public with valuable water quality information so we can ultimately find and fix the sources of pollution and ensure clean water for generations to come.