The public is filling in the gaps because the government lacks the resources to regularly test most beaches.

In this makeshift laboratory tucked in a corner of the Paia Youth and Cultural Center, it’s alright if you track sand in.

Maui County locator map

There’s a white sand beach outside the backdoor. Inside the center, children often linger to ask about the science project set up on old desks.

It’s in no way private, but it’s the perfect location for the lab techs focused on collecting and analyzing seawater from beaches like Paia Bay. 

Marla Tomorug and Greg Masessa test samples of seawater at the Paia Youth and Cultural Center. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

This is the headquarters of Maui’s Blue Water Task Force, a group of volunteers with Surfrider Foundation who collect water samples from 20 or so spots across the island to test for harmful bacteria from sewage and animal feces. It’s the only group that regularly tests several popular beaches and streams along Maui’s north shore and in remote communities as far as Hana, where the state health department hasn’t gone since before the pandemic. 

“The community was coming to us,” said Greg Masessa, the task force coordinator.

The Surfrider task force recently started testing beaches in South Maui because of reports that surfers were getting itchy and sick after major storms and swells. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

Masessa is acutely aware of how, depending on where they live, Maui County residents don’t have the tools to learn whether their beaches, streams and waterfalls are contaminated with bacteria or other things that can make them sick. He is among dozens of community members who, on their days off work, roll up their sleeves to scoop up samples of seawater in hopes of filling in the gaps left by state government.

Since 2010, for example, the Hawaii Department of Health has tested water from Hana Bay just three times, according to testing data. During that same timeframe, on the opposite side of the island near the Kaanapali resorts, the department took more than 800 samples from Hanakaoo, a beach it deems a top priority.

It comes down to resources. The health department receives around $300,000 each year from the Environmental Protection Agency to pay for testing across hundreds of miles of shoreline stretching around all the Hawaiian Islands. Under the testing program, there’s one staff member on Kauai, two on the Big Island and three on Oahu.

In Maui County, there is one person in a jurisdiction that spans four islands — Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe. 

With only one staff member, it’s a struggle just to cover the entire island of Maui. On Molokai and Lanai, the state does no testing whatsoever. And since there’s no staff on those two islands, the state for years hasn’t issued any brown water advisories there either — the public health warnings aimed at telling the public to avoid dirty water that might be contaminated with pesticides, fecal matter, dead animals or other toxins. 

State data shows that Maui, for example, has seen five brown water advisories since the start of this year alone.

But despite dealing with disastrous rainstorms in recent years that have flooded homes, routinely covered a highway in mud and turned the coastal waters the color of chocolate, no such warnings have been issued on Molokai since 2018.

“We don’t have staff there so we can’t visually confirm brown water,” said Myron Honda, who works for the state’s Clean Water Branch.

Honda said he knows that residents would like more testing, but that’s dependent on the EPA funneling more money to Hawaii. Right now, the department prioritizes which beaches to monitor based on the presence of lifeguards, which serves as an indicator of how busy they are. On Maui, the vast majority are concentrated on the west and south sides of the island.

Piles of mud and dirt line a Molokai highway in the aftermath of a storm in February. Council member Gabe Johnson has pushed for funding to pay for community water testing on Lanai, and council member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez wants to do the same for Molokai. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

But across the county, threats to clean water are only accelerating because of coastal erosion, aging and outdated sewage plants, upland farming practices that use pesticides and the overpopulation of deer that graze down pastures, allowing even more dirt to wash into the ocean during major rainstorms.

Every time there’s a deluge, Maui residents like Liz Yannell see the consequences. Yannell has always been passionate about trying to protect the island’s beaches and volunteered with Surfrider’s task force before she recently became the senior team lead for Hui O Ka Wai Ola. The hui is made up of scientists, community organizations and residents who test water from roughly 30 sites along 40 miles of Maui’s coastline.

Even with around 30 volunteers, Yannell said testing is an expensive undertaking. It costs about $5,300 to sample each site once every three weeks over the course of a year. The hui analyzes each sample for a number of measures, including the clarity of the water and presence of nutrients that can signal issues with sewage or agricultural practices on land. The results are then shared with the health department, which uses the data when analyzing changes to Maui’s water quality.

The hui’s recent data shows just how dirty Maui’s oceans become after torrential rains drive all sorts of dirt and debris down the slopes of Haleakala.

In late January, for example, after several big rainstorms, Yannell said the hui documented turbidity — the measurement of cloudiness in water — at a South Maui beach at more than 230 times higher than the state’s current threshold. Brown water can devastate coral reefs, which depend on clarity and sunlight to survive.

“The corals can literally starve to death,” Yannell said. 

The Surfrider task force now has two labs. It recently partnered with a teacher Hana School, who tests the East Maui samples on campus. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

Armed with the data, the hui’s members are then able to zero in on the places most harmed by pollution and figure out what to do about it.

For example, some are restoring inland plants to prevent soil erosion or pushing the county to upgrade sewage plants to stop it from seeping into the ocean. Other Maui residents, meanwhile, are focusing on advocating for better warning systems to protect people from the harmful bacteria that end up in oceans and streams. 

Lauren Blickley, regional manager of Hawaii’s Surfrider chapters, has been asking the state for years to put out signs at beaches when there’s brown water — something the health department says it’s working on. Hawaii residents might know to avoid the water when it isn’t clear, but tourists who come from states where coastlines are often murky don’t know any better. 

She’s also pushing to better understand just how polluted the ocean becomes during major brown water events. Right now, the health department doesn’t do any testing when the ocean is brown because officials say they know it’s already contaminated. And once a sample comes back over the safe limit, their staff has to return every single day to sample until the bacteria count falls below the threshold, leaving them without the resources to test other beaches.

Greg Masessa works as a surf instructor and said he’s gotten sick after being in brown water. He believes the lack of testing in rural communities is an affront to environmental justice. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

But from Blickley’s perspective, gathering data only on the clear days doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the health of Maui’s oceans. She hopes to one day drum up more volunteers to staff a rapid response team to test when the water looks more like mud, in hopes of better understanding just how dangerous it is and how long it takes before it’s safe again.

“We’re a community that really depends so much on our oceans,” Blickley said. “We should have the best and most robust testing.”

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

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