MAALAEA, Maui — When Peter Cannon was growing up in the 1950s, the bay outside his childhood home was a brilliant turquoise. The crystal-clear water rippled with marine life. Exotic seashells with pink and blue stripes speckled the beach. When Cannon snorkeled, schools of brightly colored, tropical fish swirled around him.

“It was like diving in an aquarium,” said Cannon, 75. “Maalaea looked like Tahiti.”

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Much has changed in the ensuing decades. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists Maalaea beach and small boat harbor as “impaired waterbodies,” meaning pollution exceeds acceptable levels. Most of the area’s coral reef is completely wiped out by sediment and nutrients. The state Division of Aquatic Resources describes the reef degradation in Maalaea as a case study in total system collapse.

“It’s a dead zone,” Cannon said.

Two factors have contributed to Maalaea Bay’s demise: sewage from injection wells and runoff from a watershed on the mauka side. Unless something is done to reverse Maalaea’s decline, Cannon and other residents fear that what was once a jewel of Maui is on track to become an ecological wasteland.

Help may be on the way. The Maui County Council is expected to vote this week on a proposal to add $9.5 million to the fiscal year 2023 budget so a state-of-the art wastewater treatment plant can be built in Maalaea. If the council votes in favor and the mayor doesn’t veto the project, the community would retire antiquated injection wells that leach human waste into Maalaea Bay.

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Part of the plan to fix the polluted Maalaea Bay requires buying a watershed mauka of the highway, building a new wastewater treatment plant and cleaning the water by filtering it with oysters. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The bay’s cleanup also hinges on controlling erosion mauka of the community. There, too, help may be on the horizon.

Plans are in the works to purchase nearly 260 acres across the highway from Maalaea Harbor, at the base of Mauna Kahalawai in the Pokahea watershed. The goal is to prevent the private parcel from being developed into a residential community of thousands of housing units. Instead, the new public owner — the state — would rehabilitate and manage the land so that muddy stormwater doesn’t flow makai into Maalaea Bay.

Other steps being taken at Maalaea include using oysters to filter out sediments in the water and planting vetiver, a fast-growing grass, to stabilize soil and control erosion. It’s all about stopping the harm to Maalaea Bay before it’s too late.

“This is our last chance,” said Tapani Vuori, vice president of Maalaea Village Association and general manager of Maui Ocean Center.

Moving Past Injection Wells

Maalaea was once a community of one-acre lots with individual homes. But in the early 1970s, zoning changes switched the focus from residential housing to resort and hotel construction, said Cannon, whose family has lived in Maalaea for five generations.

“The county forced our island beach homes to become condominiums,” he said.

Ten condo buildings sprang up in Maalaea along with commercial businesses and nonprofit organizations. To handle the waste, construction workers dug two dozen injection wells.

Maalaea Harbor is considered an “impaired waterbody” by the Environmental Protection Agency. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2016

The wells are between 40 and 70 feet deep, and are located 50 to 100 feet away from the ocean, according to the Maalaea Village Association. They accept waste from about 2,800 people.

The shallow wells provide what’s called “primary treatment.” That means the sewage flows through a screen that removes large floating objects. After it’s been screened, the sewage passes into a grit chamber where smaller particles settle to the bottom.

A major troubling feature of Maalaea’s injection wells is how close they sit to the ocean. Effluent disposed through injection wells is known to leach and find its way to the ocean. Injection well technology, popular 50 years ago, is under scrutiny both in Maui and around the country.

Back in the mid-1970s, it was considered cutting edge. It was a way to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, passed in 1972. Before then, raw sewage on Maui was discharged directly into the ocean, according to the county.

“I remember seeing it,” Lynn Britton, past president of the Maalaea Village Association, said, wrinkling her nose.

In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with environmental groups in a lawsuit they filed in 2012 against Maui County for using injection wells to discharge around 4 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into waters surrounding Lahaina every day.

The groups used dye to trace where wastewater from the injection wells ended up. The court found, based on the evidence, that wastewater from county-run injection wells, located half a mile from the beach in Lahaina, was seeping through groundwater and ending up in the Pacific Ocean in violation of the Clean Water Act. The county was ordered to clean up its act and get federal pollution discharge permits, a process that remains ongoing, according to David Henkin, the Earthjustice attorney who handled the case.

Although they haven’t conducted dye studies, Maalaea residents are convinced the same situation is happening in their community.

Amy Hodges of the Maui Nui Marine Resources Council pulls oysters from Maalaea Harbor that are used to filter the water. Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2022

“It is reasonable to think that effluent is reaching the ocean,” said Robin Knox, a Kihei-based water quality expert who also works for the Maui Ocean Center in an environmental policy and regulatory role.

“As we saw with the recent Supreme Court case regarding injection wells, there is a known connection between what we inject into the ground and what appears in our ocean water,” Councilwoman Kelly King said in an April 6 news release.

To address their water quality problems, Maalaea residents formed a steering committee in 2018 to figure out how the community could transition from injection wells to a modern waste management system.

Their efforts have culminated in a $9.5 million proposal by King for a new plant to be built.

If the new plant is owned and operated by Maui County, the project would be eligible for Clean Water Act state revolving funds. The state is receiving tens of millions of dollars from the recent federal infrastructure bill and those funds can be tapped for the Maalaea project, according to King.

“This is a funding window that won’t stay open for long,” said Vuori.

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele urged support for the project.

“This is an opportunity for the County of Maui to leverage the historic bipartisan infrastructure law, which provides over $80 million to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund over the next five years,” Kahele said in a press release.

It’s unclear whether Maui Mayor Michael Victorino will support county ownership of the proposed plant.

“Maui County has met with the Maalaea community and will continue to meet with residents to find the best way forward in managing their privately owned wastewater system. This is a complex issue that should be a part of a countywide policy to determine what is best for the community and the natural environment,” Brian Perry, the mayor’s spokesman, said.

If the mayor vetoes the wastewater treatment funding, six of the nine council members would need to vote to override the veto.

Healing A Watershed

Capping injection wells won’t solve all Maalaea’s water-quality problems. There’s a big upland component as well. And after years of effort, that piece of the puzzle appears to be falling into place.

The Maalaea Village Association has been working with Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, the Trust for Public Land and others to arrange for the purchase of 258 acres of private land located along the Honoapiilani Highway, across the road from Maalaea. It’s part of the Pohakea watershed, often called Maalaea Mauka.

Protecting the Pohakea watershed is part of the solution to restoring Maalaea Bay. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The Trust for Public Land is negotiating with the private landowner to buy the property for an amount that has not been publicly disclosed.

If the landowner sells to the trust, the trust will turn the property over to the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife which would manage it as a forest reserve. Steps would be taken to reduce erosion, curb stormwater runoff and mitigate the spread of wildfires which also lead to muddy water and sedimentation flowing downhill.

Over the years, various proposals have been floated to develop housing and other commercial projects, triggering concern by the Maalaea Village Association, Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow, Maui Nui Marine Resource Council and others.

The village association two years ago sought county funding to purchase the land and give it to the state. The Maui County Council approved $5.5 million for the purchase in 2021 and $500,000 the prior year, according to the village association. The Trust for Public Land has applied for $1 million from the Hawaii Legacy Land Conservation Program and expects to receive it, said Leah Lani Rothbaum, the trust’s Sustainable Hawaii project manager.

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If nonprofits can buy the watershed, the plan would be to turn it over to the state to manage it as a forest reserve. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Because property values have increased since then, the council this week is expected to vote on another $750,000 to complete the purchase, she said.

Once the funding is in place, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife is prepared to accept title to the land, according to the Trust and the Maalaea Village Association.

While the money component is being resolved, staff and volunteers from Maui Nui Marine Resources Council are already taking steps to curb erosion from washing downstream. They’ve been planting vetiver in parts of the watershed, a grass species that holds soil in place and filters sediment out of storm water.

A photo of John Astilla, owner of Sunshine Vetiver Solutions, and Amy Hodges of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council planting vetiver grass in Maalaea.
John Astilla, owner of Sunshine Vetiver Solutions, and Amy Hodges of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council plant vetiver grass in Maalaea. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

“It acts like whale baleen,” said Amy Hodges, the group’s operations and program manager.

The council also has built firebreaks in the watershed. A firebreak is a gap in vegetation – sometimes a dirt road — that acts to slow the spread of flames.

Fire suppression is key in the area because wildfires have forced evacuations and the closure of Honoapiilani Highway, which can create a public safety hazard.

Fires also scorch vegetation and degrade soil, which washes away in storms and floats into the bay.

Another ecological tool the council is using to holistically treat Maalaea Bay is located at the small boar harbor, suspended in cages in the marina’s brownish water.

On a recent morning, Hodges made her weekly rounds around the harbor, pulling cages of Pacific oysters out of oolong-colored water. Rotating the cages, she inspected the bivalves to make sure they were still alive and filtering.

The oysters are helping to clean the water at Maalaea Bay by feeding and filtering out sediment and pollutants. As the water gets cleaner, more sunlight can penetrate which is good for corals and fish.

Amy Hodges of Maui Nui Marines Resources Council holds oysters that are being used to clean the water at Maalaea Bay. Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2022

Cannon, the longtime Maalaea resident, is glad that the oysters are doing their part to help heal the waters and marine ecosystem of his hometown. He’s also thankful for the efforts of fellow condo owners, nonprofit partners, King, Kahele and others.

But for Cannon, there’s a bottom line. In his view, Maui County should be on the hook to fix the problems it created back in the 1970s. It should not be left up to condo owners to fund and operate their own multimillion-dollar wastewater treatment plant. They have neither the funds nor the expertise, he said.

“The County of Maui created this problem in the first place,” Cannon said. “The County of Maui has an obligation to fix this problem for all the citizens of Maui.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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