Blue Water Task Force, Updates, Beach Act, Water Quality
April 05 2016

State should post warnings when streams and beaches are polluted

by Stuart H. Coleman

Our Hawaii Regional Manager, Stuart Coleman, wrote this op-ed which was featured in the Honolulu Star Advertiser on Sunday, April 3. 

Hawaiian lifeguard and surfing legend Rell Sunn used to say, “Malama i ke kai” — “Take care of the ocean.”

She knew that the health of the ocean reflects our own health, and if coastal waters are polluted, we could get sick as well.

Hawaii is known for its pristine beaches and clear tropical waters. The residents who live here and those who visit treasure all the ocean activities that they offer. 

Whether your passion is surfing, snorkeling, fishing, paddling or just enjoying a good day on the beach, you’d expect that the crystal blue waters you are playing in to be clean and would not cause you to get sick.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case in many locations around the state, and the state Department of Health (DOH) is not doing its best to protect the health of visitors and locals alike when it comes to warning people about polluted waters.

For the last seven years, The Surfrider Foundation’s Kauai chapter has been testing the water quality of over 25 surf breaks, streams and estuaries on a monthly basis. Our data indicate that bacteria levels in many island streams are 10 to 100 times greater than the acceptable limit set by the state and Environmental Protection Agency to protect public health in recreational waters. 

Four streams fail to meet health standards every single time they are tested, and five others have failed over 80 percent of the time.

But the families and children who love to play in these polluted streams and beach parks don’t know to stay away. 

Why? Because the state refuses to post warning signs — despite our repeated requests and the convincing scientific evidence we have presented of a real public health concern.

The Surfrider Foundation has had success in other states where our chapters have been able to work cooperatively with state and local agencies to apply our citizen science program to better protect public health at the beach and waterways. We would like the same outcome here in Hawaii, but we are becoming discouraged at the unwillingness of the HDOH to work with us on this issue.

Surfrider has received overwhelming concern and comments from our supporters and members sharing their stories of contracting skin afflictions after going into the water in Oahu and Kauai. Is this the reputation Hawaii wants to have?

The Department of Health also does not consistently warn the public when its own test results indicate bacteria levels that exceed state water quality standards. 

DOH only posts warning signs when there is a known human source of contamination, such as a sewage spill or culpable cesspool. 

Otherwise, it does nothing, despite requirements from the EPA to notify the public when bacteria levels exceed or are expected to exceed health standards. 

Meanwhile, it lets people venture into potentially polluted waters and allow the risk of them getting sick with stomach and digestion ailments, flu-like symptoms, hard-to-treat skin infections or something worse.

In other instances, the DOH has taken important steps to protect public health. Earlier this month, Gov. David Ige signed new administrative rules proposed by the Health Department to start fixing one of the biggest sources of water quality pollution in Hawaii — cesspools.

Surfrider Foundation applauds the approval of these new rules that will prevent any new cesspools from being installed across the state and will provide tax incentives for homeowners in certain areas to upgrade their systems to reduce the impact on local waters. This is a sign of progress.

Now, it’s time for the Department of Health to do the right thing and post warning signs at chronically polluted streams and whenever bacteria levels exceed health standards at the beach, so tourists and locals alike can be protected from getting sick. 

Malama i ke kai — take care of the ocean — because our own health depends on clean coastal waters.