It cannot be seen, but most of the waters along the Kona Coast are Impaired
Richard H. Bennett Ph.D.
Applied Life Sciences LLC
Take a long drive along Hawai‘i Island State Route 19 and visit beaches and shores along the way. This may be a keen idea for many tourists visiting our island. At each stop along the way, from Miloli‘i in the South to Mahukona in the North, it is a good bet visitors will be taken aback by the beauty of those places where the ocean embraces the land. Visitors will be in awe of the deep blue waters as they encounter the shore with rolling waves and swells that dash upon the rocks in an eternal dance. Ask any one of these delighted tourists what they think, and they may use words like pristine, wild, natural, majestic and unspoiled. This perspective arises from images of beaches and shores all over the world where the water is brown and opaque, where floating litter outnumbers the shorebirds a hundred to one. It is not surprising they view our water as a miraculous blessing.
Similarly, ask any kama‘aina (people of the land or locals) and they too, in spite of living here and experiencing these waters for a lifetime, they also will talk of the beauty with great reverence of our culture. There is something about the beauty of the ocean that speaks to the souls of almost all people.
When locals and visitors alike are asked how do the oceans here in Kona look, they almost to the person say it looks fantastic and so good. They are not wrong the ocean does look great, clean and unspoiled. The visual queues, however, have significant limitations’ and challenge the notion that “seeing is believing."
As most people will appreciate, there is far more to our world than our eyes can reveal. Whether it is the tiny virus particle or an entire galaxy millions of light years away, without technology, these things would remain unknown. This brings us back to "see" the ocean with the aid of established technology.
It may be unsettling to hear this, yet it has to be said. There are things in our oceans we cannot see, and yet they indicate all is not well, not pristine and a clarion to action.
Our national water quality policy, called the Clean Water Act (CWA) requires the states implementing the policy to monitor the quality of coastal water and inland lakes and streams. This process creates a report that lists those water bodies that do not meet objective quality criteria, and those sites get "Listed” as “Impaired” by the state and the EPA.
As we drive along Highway 19 with the report in hand, we will find that in 2014 that 27 nearshore sites are listed as "Impaired." Many of these sites have been listed for over eight years. The list is growing as water quality standards attainment is not occurring.
After visiting all 27 shores, the viewer may well be confused and say, “I did not see anything." Unless they donned a scuba mask and went in the water, they still may not see anything. Not unless they have been diving or snorkeling that site for years. In that case, it is not seeing more but seeing less! What we divers call visibility is how far we can see underwater. Tropical waters are historically known for great "vis” as we call yet. In the Kona waters, the "vis” has been declining for decades. The measurement that reveals the decrease in the “vis” is called turbidity. A turbidimeter measures light transmission through a water sample. As the water becomes turbid less light can pass. The meter makes an objective measurement. It is easy to do with a meter that typically costs less than $300.
Relatively recently the Keauhou Canoe club at the hands of Dr. Dennis Mihalka did an extensive study documenting conditions in the Keauhou Bay. Measurements taken from the open ocean to the shores of the bay demonstrated very significant turbidity in the inner bay.
As shown in the study many things can temporarily increase turbidity. Events like big swells and high winds do stir up the fine sediments for a short while. During the warmer calm months of late summer, the water was quite turbid.
Our turbidity problems will cause a water body to become listed, but what is causing the turbidity. In a word, phytoplankton. These microscopic plants are common to most oceans and overpopulate when conditions are right. Ok, but what is driving the phytoplankton bloom. In one word, nutrients and there is much more to the ecology, but nutrients, especially from humans has a lot to do with it.
Take a look at the table of data. It is evident that many sites have exceedances of Nitrogen and phosphorus. Where do most of these nutrients arise? In one word, us.
We eat nitrogen in the form of protein. It gets digested and degraded, and the N is excreted most in the urine. In the environment, bacteria convert it to nitrate. Phosphate is a critical component of our energy metabolism and is an essential nutrient. P gets excreted in the urine and feces.
To be sure there are other sources of nitrogen in the near shore environment, but people are the most significant and growing source. We can carefully estimate how much nitrogen and phosphorus we humans add to the water environment. In one such lower estimate of about two hundred thousand of pounds of N are added to the environment in the greater Kailua Kona area each year.
There are some that want to deny this reality and speculate that all this nitrogen comes from the natural environment. Yes, some minor fraction does arise. The work of Dr. R. Dialer at UH Manoa measures isotopic forms of N, and from that, we see that at the more urban locations on Maui and the Hawai‘i island the N signature is human wastewater.
On Hawaiʻi Island, wastewater is mostly out of sight and hence out of mind. Upon closer accounting of this concern, it would appear we are indeed out of our minds. Human wastewater is quickly moved underground via fifty thousand cesspools, hundreds to thousands of injection wells and discharged from centralized wastewater treatment plants. All totaled is millions of gallons per day, every day.
For decades the state of Hawaii regarded this discharges as discharges to land, and there was no hydrologic connection to the sea! On an island how could this be conceived, nonetheless be a reality? It took a citizen suit against the county of Maui to convince them that wastewater for their injection wells flowed underground into the sea and degraded the quality of the ocean. Yes, Governor and Mr. Mayor, water flows downhill on an island too.
We cannot see N and P in the ocean. That requires some pretty sophisticated auto-analyzers. Fortunately, there are a couple of such machines on the island that can help us see below sea level. What we are seeing is more and more ocean sites exceed the standards for N, and P. Out of the 27 listed ocean sites 12 exceed the nitrogen standard and 10 for the phosphorus standard. Concerning is that ten sites have exceedances for both N and P. Why is the concerning? At these sites the fertilization is complete, and the phytoplankton may respond accordingly, just a grass lawn responds to complete fertilization.
Right now we have enough data to know that 27 ocean sites on the Kona Coast do not meet the water quality standards determined by our policies. Impaired sites, by law, must begin the process of remediation. That is a government process which includes the establishment of TMDLʻs. It stands for Total Maximum Daily Load. It works by determining the sources of the nutrient in the environment and then limiting its discharge there. As the name suggests this is a comprehensive process and when done right it works. In spite of the law, Hawai‘i island has no TMDL Programs at all. The other islands only have a few. Thus the state via the Department of Health chooses merely to ignore the law and has done so for over a decade with consequences.
Given the current budgetary constraints and the pathetic policies of the EPA administrator, and the Department of Health, nothing is going to change anytime soon. We now are all we got, and many of us are arming ourselves with technology and the ability granted in the Clean Water Act for citizen legal actions.
The data the state generates has many holes in it. That is the sampling and testing program is hit and miss for deficiencies in budget and staffing. Even with those constraints resolved no one is compiling and evaluating all the data so we can ultimately see below sea level. That is changing with some great personal and professional effort far apart from government.
A project we inspired locally with the academic assistance of Dr. Karen Kempʻs USC graduate student Don Borer is currently amassing over 60 thousand water quality data points from hundreds of sources all for the greater Kona coastal area. This mega data set will be analyzed and mapped to show us the water quality data spanning decades. Ultimately, it will create easy to understand Story Maps. These maps will enable the students of Miloli‘i as well as the scientist in Waimea, to see, with little to incredible detail, what has been unseen for far too long. For too long we have been “flying blind."
It is our hope and intention that when people can see the ocean and at the same time see below sea level, and understand the decline, more and more people will turn their love for the sea into action. We will be informed by science but act from the heart.
State of Hawai‘i CWA 303(D) Report
|Second Beach Mahaiula||N|
|Honaunau Two Step||N|
|Keahole Point *||N|
|Mahukona Harbor Oceanic||N||N||N||N|
|Pine Trees - Honokohou||N||N||N||N||N||N|
|Spencer Beach Park||N||N|
|Wailua to Anaehoomula||N||N||N||N||N||N|
|Wawaloli- Pine Trees||N||N||N|
|White Sands Beach||N||N|
Note: Nine of these sites have been listed for 8 years.
All tests are not conducted on all sites at the same time. Blanks are no sample or meet standards
 USEPA Section 303(d) Clean Water Act https://www.epa.gov/tmdl
State of Hawaii Water Quality Assesment Report 2016. https://health.hawaii.gov/cwb/files/2013/05/Draft-2016-State-of-Hawaii-Water-Quality-Monitoring-and-Assessment-Report.pdf
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