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Twain Newhart is about to take off in a one-man kayak on the Ala Wai Canal. He lifts up his leg and points to a black scab.
“It happens all the time,” he says. “It can be bad. It can be really bad. The staph, if it is staph, is the one problem that all paddlers in the Ala Wai face.”
Another paddler displays a deep scar on his hip where an infection had to be drained.
It’s an all too common problem.
Every year, hundreds of canoe racers, from children to adults, paddle out into the murky waters of the Ala Wai Canal even though the water — by the state’s own standards — isn’t safe for recreation.
For more than two decades, the canal has regularly failed state and federal water quality standards for recreational bodies of water, limits that are in place to keep people from getting sick.
But there is little if any thought given to banning public use of the Ala Wai Canal and some health officials shrug off their own data on high bacterial counts.
Markus Owens, a spokesman for the city of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services, says he doesn’t think the data is a good indicator of health risks.
But many paddlers say that the health problems in the canal are rife. One paddling coach, who contracted MRSA, a staph infection that can be life threatening, says he advises his paddlers to take preventive antibiotics.
In 2006, a man died from bacterial infections he contracted after he fell in the canal soon after the city had dumped raw sewage into it.
And taxpayers have been forced to pay at least $200,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a surfer who also suffered from life-threatening bacterial infections related to sewage dumping in the canal. She was surfing off Waikiki Beach and was infected after she cut herself on coral.
But some say that the canal’s pollution amounts to more of a nuisance than a serious health hazard.
“We don’t have bodies lying in the street,” said June Harrigan-Lum, a former state health official. “That is where there would be a serious investigation and enforcement. Yes, people do get infections and they get sick and the infections clear up and not much is done.”
Even the paddlers themselves say they’d rather put up with the scabs, boils and rashes then give up their prime recreational site. In fact, they worry that bringing attention to their health problems could prompt the government to shut it down.
“I don’t want to complain because we like using it,” said Rachel Orange, who coaches one of the competitive paddling teams that regularly train on the Ala Wai.
The Ala Wai is classified as a Class 2 body of water under the 1972 Clean Water Act, landmark federal legislation passed to clean up the nation’s polluted waterways. The classification means the state must keep the canal safe for recreational use “in and on” the water, as well as protect its aquatic life.
But a Civil Beat review of the past seven years of data on enterococci — a bacteria the state uses as an indicator for dangerous levels of pathogens — shows that the canal fails state standards the majority of the time. Bacteria levels in the canal rarely fall below the state’s safe limit for recreational bodies of water and often spike tens of times higher than acceptable levels.
A toxic soup of other pollutants have been detected in the canal over the years, too, including heavy metals, pesticides and excessive levels of nutrients that can cause algae blooms and can be harmful to human health.
[VIDEO] Part Three: Is The Ala Wai An Asset Or A Liability?
While the federal Clean Water Act requires states to set a safe standard for recreational bodies of water, if a waterbody fails the standard, there’s no requirement to shut it down.
“You don’t remove the use because the standards aren’t met,” said Janet Hashimoto, a manager for water quality standards in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s San Francisco office, which oversees Hawaii.
“The expectation is one of these days it will meet the use of the standards.”
But past data on bacteria levels suggest the state is far from on its way to meeting those standards.
Environmental attorneys have sued the state in the past in order to force action on water quality. But even they have little inclination to take on the Ala Wai Canal again.
They say there is no federal requirement to shut down the canal. The state is required to come up with a federally approved plan to reduce the bacteria counts, which it hasn’t done, and the EPA, which has the power to intervene, hasn’t made the state comply, environmental advocates say. That means the only recourse is to sue the state for failing to comply with Clean Water Act regulations, they say.
Both state and federal officials said the lack of resources is the real problem and that the state health department doesn’t have enough people or money to address all the water pollution throughout the state.
Right now the state’s priorities are on tackling pollution in areas such as Hanalei Bay on Kauai, where the water contains high bacteria counts, and west Maui, where injection wells could be polluting the nearshore waters, says Watson Okubo, who supervises water monitoring for the state health department’s clean water branch.
Dean Higuchi, a spokesman for the EPA, acknowledged that the state was required by federal law to come up with a plan to reduce the bacteria levels in the Ala Wai Canal. But the EPA has no intention of cracking down. He said that the state’s limited resources could be put to better use in other areas.
“The Ala Wai (watershed) is a very large, large area that will take an immense amount of resources,” he said. “If you sink all your resources into the Ala Wai, then others get neglected.”
Daniel Cooper, an attorney for San Francisco-based Lawyers for Clean Water, said that the Clean Water Act doesn’t have “a lack of resources exception.”
“So the state says, ‘Oh it doesn’t matter.’ But they are violating federal law right now,” Cooper said.
He said it’s “disgraceful” for the EPA to take the position it has no legal obligation to try to force the state to comply.
Karen Ah Mai, executive director of the Ala Wai Watershed Association, says she became involved in trying to clean up the canal years ago out of concern for her daughter, a paddler.
“Every mom’s horror story is that their child will overturn their canoe in the Ala Wai Canal,” she said. “And after she did that twice, I said, my God, I need to do something about this because moms have nightmares about their children falling in the Ala Wai Canal.”
Ah Mai also worried that her daughter could get sick simply by swallowing the contaminated water.
“If they should accidentally drink some of that water, I dread to think what would happen to their systems,” she said. “When the kids are paddling during the high school season, we know that most of the kids are going to get an infection.”
Health experts say that the pollutants in the canal can cause skin, ear, eye and throat infections, as well as painful gastrointestinal illnesses. More serious concerns center around bacterial infections that can be resistant to antibiotics.
Paddlers with open wounds are at particular risk.
“You really have to get those cleaned out well because that is a broth of bacteria,” said Dr. Jim Ireland, a kidney specialist and former emergency services director for the city.
But despite the warnings of health experts and the concerns of paddlers and parents like Ah Mai, there’s little support for banning paddling, and in particular, outrigger canoe racing — Hawaii’s state sport and an interscholastic high school sport.
The Ala Wai Canal is one of the best places to practice and race because of its flat, controlled environment.
In the evenings, paddlers gliding along the canal have a view of the thousands of lights that illuminate the Waikiki skyline. And as they head out past the mouth of the canal and into the open ocean they’re greeted with the turquoise Waikiki waters lit by the brilliant hues from the sun setting along the horizon.
Outrigger canoe paddlers say that the Ala Wai Canal is one of the few places to practice around Honolulu that has an exit to the ocean. Waikiki and the beach at Ala Moana have been off limits for years.
People, including local environmental advocates, say they just want government officials to clean up the canal.
“Should the state or city make it illegal to enter the Ala Wai? I don’t know, that’s a hard one,” said Chris Sproul, an attorney who represented local environmental groups in a lawsuit to force the city to fix its leaking sewage collection system.
Sproul himself used to paddle on the canal with the Lokahi Canoe Club in the late 1990s. He says he too contracted a bacterial infection from the water.
“I hulied and I lived to tell about it,” he said, a reference to capsizing a canoe.
“It was well known to us then that it was a health hazard and we probably shouldn’t have been paddling there,” he said. “But that is where the club was.”
Rather than banning paddling, he said he’d rather see officials clean up the canal, install showers and do more to raise awareness about the water’s health risks and the importance of disinfecting any open cuts.
But there’s no indication that conditions in the Ala Wai Canal are going to improve any time soon given how complicated officials say it is to clean up the water. And the Ala Wai Canal has not been on on the state’s list of priority waterbodies to improve for years.
Other paddlers said that while the water is polluted, bacteria infections are a part of many sports.
“It’s always dirty. The main thing you don’t want to do with the Ala Wai is eat anything out of it,” said Orange. “In general, your skin does a pretty good job of protecting you. As long as I don’t have open wounds I don’t worry too much.”
Click here to view Civil Beat’s charts on bacteria levels in the canal.
Coming Thursday: Flood control efforts aim to keep Waikiki from disaster