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State health officials are blaming the fecal waste of feral pigs, sheep, rats, birds and possibly a dozen land tortoises for polluting a stream that people frequent on the south shore of Kauai.
The Department of Health acknowledged in a long-awaited report last week that it has concerns about the public health issue at Waiopili Stream, but it won’t post warning signs about the extremely high levels of enterococcus detected in water surveys because no direct sources of human sewage could be identified.
The bacteria, a widely used indicator of fecal contamination, is found in animal and human intestines and can cause serious, even life-threatening diseases. Health officials maintain that when it’s in animal waste, it’s not nearly as dangerous to humans as their own sewage.
They have no plans to definitively determine whether the animals pose a significant risk of illness to humans.
The Surfrider Foundation has fought for years to have the department at least post warning signs when enterococcus levels exceed safe limits. The nonprofit organization, which independently tests water quality around Hawaii, contends it’s a statewide problem.
“It is irrelevant at very high concentrations whether that is human waste or animal waste; it is still a public health risk,” said Carl Berg, Surfrider’s Kauai chapter chair. The marine biologist and research scientist has been testing water quality on the Garden Isle for 20 years.
“We have been asking the Department of Health repeatedly to put up warning signs, then go out and determine what is the problem, and then fix it,” Berg said. “It’s not enough to just monitor. I don’t want my kids and grandkids swimming in animal waste.”
Surfrider’s persistence eventually led to the department’s sanitary study of Mahaulepu, the south shore area where Waiopili Stream is located. The state says it’s technically a man-made drainage ditch.
Stream or ditch, it’s carrying water over agricultural lands and into the ocean. Mahaulepu is not as popular as nearby Poipu Beach by any stretch, but people do regularly go there to recreate, trading a hotel backdrop for the Haupu Mountains.
State and nationally recognized safe limits of enterococcus are 35 bacteria per 100 milliliters of water, based on the geometric mean of five samples.
Heavy rains and relatively isolated weather events can spike the numbers, so the Environmental Protection Agency says the water source is generally safe if doesn’t exceed 130 bacteria per 100 ml more than 10 percent of the time. That’s the same guideline that Hawaii cemented in its administrative rules.
Surfrider’s most recent test of Waiopili Stream, conducted March 12, was 15,531 bacteria per 100 ml. That’s more than 100 times the safe limit of enterococcus. It’s been even higher: Last April, it was 24,196. The lowest level Surfrider has tested over the past two years was 1,421, in June.
The state tested sites in the area from November 2014 to March 2015, and the range was 120 bacteria per 100 ml up to 1,847. But the department’s detection limits are capped at 2,005, which was exceeded six times, throwing off the geometric mean.
“The Department of Health has investigated the high bacteria level in Waiopili Stream to see if it is caused by sewage, and our survey found no human sources,” said Keith Kawaoka, DOH deputy director of Environmental Health, said in a statement. “The high bacteria appear to be from animal sources and soil, enhanced by the natural canopy of trees that prevent sunlight from killing bacteria in the ditch. These sources present a considerably lower health risk than human sewage contamination.”
The bottom line to Berg is that regardless of who is doing the testing, the results are well above safe limits and yet the department is not willing to put up signs.
Stuart Coleman, head of the Hawaii chapter of Surfrider, said the Health Department has been great to work with on some issues in recent years, like pushing a rule to ban new cesspools that Gov. David Ige signed last month.
But Coleman said health officials fall short when it comes to letting people know about contaminated water with a few exceptions, such as the Ala Wai Canal in Honolulu.
Surfrider recently obtained a grant that will enable the Oahu chapter to conduct unprecedented water testing around the island. This comes after the group restarted its Blue Water Task Force last year, which was testing just on the south shore and finding safe water conditions.
Possibly by this summer, Surfrider will have the results of tests at sites around Oahu, not just for enterococcus but 100 types of pollutants.
“It’s going to be cutting edge,” Coleman said.
Surfrider had been asking for the Mahaulepu study for at least a year and a half. Coleman said the department’s study happened to come out just days after the group launched a nationwide campaign advocating for more citizen science in light of the lead-in-the-water disaster in Flint, Michigan.
“At any other state in the country, they would close the beach and post signs,” he said. “Even Mississippi. We’re being beat by states that are really anti-big government and very right wing.”
Hawaii’s health officials are following their administrative rules, which require warning signs to be posted at locations where human sewage has been identified as temporarily contributing to the enterococci count.
For Waiopili, the department does not intend to find out for sure how much humans or animals are to blame for the high enterococcus counts.
“To definitively determine whether the animals in this specific area pose a significant risk of illness to humans, a site-specific risk assessment must be performed; however, such a process is cost-prohibitive and resource intensive and is unrealistic for this location at this time given that the area is not a heavily used recreational area and is subject to restricted access,” the department says in the study.
But health officials do want to take a closer look at the impact of 1,600 cesspools and 2,200 disposal systems in the neighboring Poipu-Koloa watershed. They say in their study that groundwater may carry wastewater contaminants from the Poipu-Koloa watershed that may impact the waters of the Mahaulepu watershed, including the Waiopili Stream.
Hawaii has some 87,000 cesspools, and was the last state to still allow new ones.
“Based on what was discovered with part one of the survey, we have turned our attention to the more serious issue of human fecal contamination that may exist in the Poipu-Koloa watershed,” Kawaoka said.
At the EPA’s recommendation, the department says it’s reviewing a contract with UC Berkeley Laboratories to conduct high tech molecular testing using its PhyloChip technology to better understand the enterococci levels present in the area.
Mahaulepu is the site of a proposed 578-acre dairy farm that generated opposition from environmental groups and others concerned about potential impacts, such as odor, flies and wastewater runoff.
Hawaii Dairy Farms, funded by Ulupono Initiative, wants to bring in 699 milking cows, and has already been blamed for contaminating water in the area.
But as the study notes and HDF spokeswoman Amy Hennessey has said, there are no cows there yet.
In 2014, Hawaii Dairy Farms began installation of an overhead irrigation system, drilled water quality monitoring wells, and began planting kikuyu grass its their leased land, the state study says.
“No grading or grubbing of the land has taken place, no buildings are being constructed, and no dairy cattle have been brought to (Mahaulepu Valley Sub-Watershed),” the study says. “The only disturbance to the ground has been for the drilling of water quality monitoring wells, the installation of the overhead irrigation system, and field plowing to grow Kikuyu grass.”
HDF is in the process of voluntarily conducting an environmental review of the possible impacts.
Hennessey said she anticipates there won’t be impacts because of plans to reuse the manure on the farm, establish setbacks and create vegetative buffers to prevent waste from leaving the farm.
“The most important thing now is what really is the cause,” she said, referring to the high levels of enterococcus in the area.
Berg doesn’t believe the project will have no impact on water quality, but he set the dairy farm issue aside.
“Almost all of our water in Hawaii is beautifully clean; that’s the good news,” he said. “But there are some areas that are not, and it’s unconscionable and unethical for the Department of Health to not warn people of those bad places.”
Note: The Ulupono Initiative was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.
Read the full Mahaulepu sanitary study below.