Paddlers and kayakers, if you fall out into the canal’s pungent and murky water, you might want to pay attention.

The same goes for fishermen sampling Ala Wai Tilapia.

This summer, if you want to know whether the Ala Wai Canal meets the state’s standards for safe recreational use, you’ll probably have to test it yourself.

Ala Wai canal, crab fisherman

Sophie Cocke/ Civil Beat

That is because the city plans to stop testing one of the most heavily used inland bodies of water in the state for dangerous bacteria levels even though the canal is among the most polluted.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said that the city will soon stop testing the canal. And the state’s Department of Health, which is responsible for overseeing the state’s water quality standards, said that it has no plans to take over for the city on the monitoring front.

The state health department simply doesn’t have the resources, said Gary Gill, Hawaii’s deputy director for environmental health.

All this even though city data for the past seven years shows that water in the canal exceeds the state’s standards most of the time. Those standards are supposed to protect people from getting sick.

Tests have often shown bacteria levels that spike to tens of times higher than acceptable levels. Samples taken from near Kaiolu Street, the Date Street Bridge, the McCully Bridge and Waikiki Yacht Club have, at times, tested nearly 1,000 times higher than the acceptable level.

Health experts say that pollutants in the canal can cause skin, ear, eye and throat infections, as well as painful gastrointestinal illnesses. Canoe paddlers have complained for years about boils and rashes.

But the city will end testing after it removes a huge emergency sewage backup pipe this month, according to Caldwell. The pipe, known as the “black noodle,” was put in place after a more traditional underground pipe broke in Waikiki in 2006, spewing raw sewage onto Kaiolu Street. To avoid further problems, officials then dumped 48 million gallons of raw waste into the canal to keep it from backing up into hotel rooms, businesses and homes.

During that time, the city regularly monitored the canal to make sure that sewage wasn’t leaking into it. While the data, which was passed on to the state health department, showed that the canal regularly violated state standards, there’s been no move to close down the canal to recreational activities.

City officials didn’t even warn canoe paddlers when there were high spikes in bacteria counts unless they knew there had been a sewage spill, city officials acknowledged to Civil Beat recently.

Even though the data hasn’t prompted action by government officials to take steps to protect public health, it provides an indication of pollution levels in the canal.

And now that data will no longer be available.

“We monitored while they were doing the work,” Caldwell told Civil Beat following a press conference on Friday about plans to remove the Ala Wai Canal’s emergency backup pipe. “And I think that falls back to the state of Hawaii.”

But the state hasn’t monitored the canal in recent years, and there are no plans to do so now, according to Gill. The state health department hasn’t tested the canal since 1999. The only time the state will test the canal, he said, is if there are signs of a sewage spill.

It is striking that both the city and the state are shirking monitoring responsibilities because the state owns the canal, and the city has jurisdiction over upland streams that feed into it. Those streams are a major source of pollution.

Asked if the city has any plans to at least tackle the pollution in those streams, Caldwell said, “I think you got to talk to the state.”

Meanwhile, the city continues to invest in canal recreation even though the water in it violates state recreational standards that are required under the federal Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972 to cleanup the nation’s waterways.

Once the canal’s backup pipe is removed, the city plans to revamp the area between the mauka side of the canal and Iolani School where the pipe emerges from the water. (The area had been closed to the public for years because of sewer work.) Caldwell said that canoe paddlers will be able to launch from the embankment again, which will be reopened for cyclists, strollers, joggers, and perhaps even dogs, if a canine park is built.

The city has also budgeted $400,000 for design work on the Ala Wai Recreational Center near McCully Bridge. The actual construction cost is estimated at $2 million, according to mayoral spokesman Johnny Brannon.

The Ala Wai Canal is classified as a “Class 2” body of water by the health department, which means that the state must keep the canal safe for recreational use “in and on” the water, as well as protect its aquatic life. Under the Clean Water Act, the state is required to come up with a plan to reduce the pollution in the canal, but it has yet to do so.

DISCUSION: Is it important for the canal to be tested and, if so, by who?

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