Blue Water Task Force
August 21 2009

Water Testing at Kaua’i Beaches

by Mara Dias

In Kaua'i, only 5 beaches are regularly monitored by the State. The Surfrider Chapter, however, is expanding on this beach program by testing 16 beaches monthly for bacteria. Results are posted on the Chapter's website.

Although, this remote Hawaiian island may conjure up visions of pristine beaches, unfortunately pollution washing down from the land has become a reality at some Kaua'i beaches. This issue has received local media attention recently (below) with comments by the Chapter's BWTF Manager, Dr. Carl Berg.

Is the water safe for swimming?

Water under the bridge: Waves wash into a Hanapepe drainage ditch, Sunday. A brown water advisory remains in effect on Kaua‘i.

Bacteria source questioned; advisory continues
By Coco Zickos - The Garden Island
Published: Monday, August 17, 2009 2:10 AM HST

• Editor’s note: This is the first article in an ongoing series to run periodically that will examine Kaua‘i water quality.

LIHU‘E — Questionable water conditions continued to lurk Sunday, as brown waves rolled onto shorelines and murky rivers and streams flowed into the ocean.

Bacteria counts are always higher after heavy rains, but it can’t be confirmed whether the cause is human waste, said Watson Okubo, monitoring and analysis section chief of the Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch.

While enterococcus — a bacteria commonly found in the feces of humans and animals — is known to be in many bodies of water throughout the island, Watson says it “may or may not be from human fecal matter.”

As of 2004, enterococcus, as opposed to e. coli, became the new indicator for federal standards of water quality at public beaches because it reportedly provides a higher correlation to many of the human pathogens often fou nd in sewage, according to a study from Water Environment Research.

Pathogens from polluted waters cause illnesses such as vomiting, headache, fever, sore throat, diarrhea, skin, ear, eye and respiratory infections, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The day before heavy rains saturated the islands Wednesday night and Thursday morning, a routine sampling completed by the DOH found that Hanalei Bay, at the end of Weke Road at Black Pot Beach, resulted in a 500 count of enterococcus per 100 mL of water — about five times the state’s “safe” level standard.

The number of bacteria in the water at Black Pot after Felicia’s remnants passed through could not be obtained by press time.

Additional tests were completed, however, by Surfrider Foundation Kaua‘i on a volunteer basis Saturday. Kalapaki Stream — which is not tested by the DOH, as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000 does not require inland water monitoring — had the highest count of enterococcus at 1,467.

“Just because you have a high enterococcus count does not mean you have a high sewage discharge,” Okubo said Friday.

Dr. Carl Berg of Kaua‘i Surfrider Foundation agreed. Enterococcus is not the “end all” indicator, he said. But, it’s no coincidence that there are a high number of cesspool and septic sewage systems which line the coasts of Kaua‘i.

Cesspools are dry wells or pits that leach untreated liquid sewage into the ground. Septic systems move waste into a multi-chamber tank with pipes which spread out over a large area and have perforations that the sewage absorbs into the ground from.

If either of these are not maintained properly, leached wastewater can infiltrate coastal recreational waters, according to the NRDC.

There are some 8,900 cesspools on Kaua‘i, largely residential, said Tom See of the Environmental Management Division of the DOH Wastewater Branch. Since 2004, new cesspools are no longer allowed on Kaua‘i.

“From the state perspective, there are currently no efforts to require functioning cesspools to be upgraded to septic systems or aerobic units unless the cesspool is in the groundwater or it is failing,” See said Friday.

The EPA requires large capacity cesspools — those which service 20 or more people a day and those at multi-dwelling residential units — to be upgraded, he added.

To upgrade from a cesspool to septic system the cost might be between $8,000 and $20,000, depending on site conditions, See said.

Though Hawai‘i beaches often rank high with entities such as Travelocity and Dr. Beach, Berg said data can be skewed depending on which beaches are tested, where the samples are collected and their proximity to rivers and streams.

For instance, neither Hanama‘ulu, which was ranked the 10th most polluted beach in the nation by the NRDC in 2007, or Waimea Recreational Pier State Park, which was considered the most polluted in the state in 2008, are tested on a regular basis.

Only five sites — Po‘ipu Beach Park, Kalapaki Beach, Hanalei Beach Park, Salt Pond Beach Park and Lydgate State Park — out of 73 on Kaua‘i are tested at least once a week and the samples are drawn from only one location on the beach.

So how can the public know what they are swimming in?

Besides common knowledge that whatever is in the ground and on the land will eventually seep into storm drains and rivers when it rains, thus flowing into the ocean, the first step toward cleaner waters is initiating comprehensive testing for enterococcus, Berg said.

The next step would be to determine which areas are of greatest concern and determining whether the bacteria can be attributed to human waste.

The ultimate goal would be to correct the situation, Berg said.

A brown water advisory is still in effect for the island, according to the state Clean Water Branch.

The public is advised to stay out of flood waters and storm water runoff due to possible overflowing cesspools, pesticides, animal fecal matter, dead animals, chemicals and associated flood debris. If coastal waters are turbid and brown, stay out.

• Coco Zickos, business and environmental writer