The County of Maui’s violation of the Clean Water Act by discharging millions of gallons of wastewater into injection wells in West Maui is widely known. The judge’s ruling came in 2014, two years after environmental organizations filed suit, alleging that the injection wells were significantly harming coral reefs in the Lahaina area–most notably, at Honolua Bay and Kahekili Beach (Old Airport Beach). In fact, studies have shown that coral at Honolua has decreased by an astonishing 76 percent since 1995, while other research has shown that because of freshwater seeps just offshore of Kahekili, a great deal of wastewater floats to the surface at that beach, which is very popular with locals and tourists alike.
What hasn’t gotten so much attention is that the county also uses injection wells at its wastewater treatment facilities in Kahului and Kihei–and a new study published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin shows that the South Maui waste plume dwarfs anything found in West Maui.
“Focus on the Lahaina facility has brought a lot of attention to the ecological and environmental issues going on in West Maui, which is positive, but after we looked at these data, we were blown away at how much higher the impairments are near Kihei,” said study co-author Mailea Miller-Pierce in a Feb. 25 news release on her new journal article. “When looking at these results, it is shocking that so little attention has been paid to Kihei. Hopefully some of the focus will shift in the near future.”
Though a researcher at Washington State University, Miller-Pierce has personal memories of South Maui. “I spent summers in Kihei as I was growing up,” she said in the Feb. 25 news release. “It hurts my heart to witness the negative ecological changes that have happened on Maui, particularly the coral declines I have seen firsthand on the South Kihei beach where I grew up snorkeling. I only hope that more action is taken, and soon, so that one day my children will be able to enjoy the beauty of the Hawaiian ocean as I have.”
The study’s results are indeed staggering. According to the study, the water just off Cove Park, Kalama Beach Park and South Kihei all show massive spikes in levels of nitrogen phosphorus, turbidity and chlorophyll a–far in excess of those measured at Kahekili Beach. In fact, the Marine Pollution Bulletin study showed that Cove Park’s levels of inorganic nitrogen–which kills coral–is more than one hundred times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard.
Studies for the last few decades have shown that increases in those nutrients lead to algal blooms and the death of corals. “A significant and growing concern is the increasing overgrowth of reefs by invasive seaweeds, particularly Acanthophora spicifera, Hypnea musciformis and Ulva spp.,” states the 2014 Department of Land & Natural Resources fact sheet “Status of Maui’s Coral Reefs.” “Shallow reefs in Kihei and Ma`alaea are now almost totally overgrown by those species… Algal blooms are indicative of a loss of balance between factors which promote algal growth (e.g. nutrient availability) and those which control algal abundance (e.g. grazing).”
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of coral to Hawaii. In addition to protecting the shoreline from a great deal of ocean waves’ power, reefs provide a home for a variety of other marine life-forms, as well as a major attraction for tourists. Reefs are largely in decline across Hawaii, but the new Marine Pollution Bulletin study indicates that Kihei nutrient levels–which are so detrimental to coral health–make the highly-publicized waters off West Maui look pristine by comparison.
“We found sites near the Kihei WWRF [wastewater reclamation facility] had more frequent and much greater WQ [water quality] exceedances than sites near the Lahaina WWRF,” states the study. “Of particular concern is Cove Park, directly next to Kalama and at the center of the wastewater plume from the Kihei WWRF… Cove Park remains a popular beach for tourists and recreationists who are largely unaware of current WQ impairments.”
The conclusion to all this is unmistakeable: though prized as a global tourist destination for the beauty and wonders of its coastline, Maui’s beaches are, in fact, in very poor health, and not a whole lot is going on right now to fix that.
Though just nine pages long, the study by Miller-Pierce and Neil A. Rhoads is heavy on the mathematics and technical jargon. Nonetheless, the authors explicitly spell out their purpose in language anyone can understand.
“Fundamentally, this paper aims to inform a larger audience on the current status of WQ impairments in Maui, and to essentially ‘sound the alarm’ for concerned citizens, researchers, and state managers to conduct further investigations into what possible effects the Kihei WWRF may be having on the marine environment, and take constructive action as appropriate,” states the paper.
To get a better handle on the research, I spoke with Miller-Pierce by phone.
MAUITIME: Thanks for talking with us. Did your findings surprise you?
MAILEA MILLER-PIERCE: Yeah, they did surprise me in some ways.
MT: How exactly did you carry out your study?
MM-P: The Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch does all the monitoring in the ocean. We only used data from the Department of Health, for the years 2004 through 2015.
MT: So how do you explain where all this pollution comes from?
MM-P: Injection wells. The county injects about three million gallons of tertiary treated waste every day at their wastewater facilities. The central part of the plume from Kihei is at Kalama Beach. I’ve seen it from the air–it looks murky, like it’s dirty. I’m most concerned that there are lots of people who learn to surf there.
I’m not a hydrologist, but in a perfectly functioning system, microbes are supposed to be breaking down that waste as it goes out to sea. But something’s not quite working here because we’re seeing higher levels of nutrients in the water. We don’t have a control, but we can look at areas further away–sites quite a ways away from the wells. And the rates are higher where the [wastewater] facilities are. There’s pretty strong evidence that something’s going on with nutrient levels near these facilities.
MT: Yeah, I read in your study that the “resurfacing groundwater,” as you call it, is “60% to 80% effluent.” How bad is the situation in Kihei?
MM-P: It’s 65 times higher than the EPA standard for turbidity. And in 2012, Cove Park was 109 times higher than the EPA standard for inorganic nitrogen. Nitrogen–and phosphorus–are important to monitor because they encourage algal blooms and kill coral.
MT: Your journal article states that all this pollution can be detrimental to the health of marine life, but says nothing about how it affects human beings.
MM-P: We are talking about it. We haven’t done anything on human health, but we are talking about looking into it.
MT: How long has this wastewater been seeping into the water off Kihei?
MM-P: No one seems to have the numbers of total effluent that’s been dumped into the ground, but a couple decades now. Over time, it’s all accumulated.
This is a pretty contentious issue, and it’s not a happy issue with the county. We just wanted to say, “Here’s the data.” Hopefully, it can inform them to make decisions.
MT: I totally get the importance of remaining objective, but that sentence in your study where you say you want to “sound the alarm” struck me as pretty pointed–not something I’m used to seeing in scientific papers.
MM-P: Yeah, that was even pushing it for me as well, but it’s true. Here’s the data, and maybe people can use it as they see fit.
The coral is a huge part of the tourist industry on Maui. I don’t really understand why there aren’t more studies on this. And it’s a timely issue–you’ve got to pay attention before it’s too late.
Citing active litigation concerning the Kihei wastewater facility, County of Maui Communications Director Rod Antone declined to comment on the news study. A few days after I read the Marine Pollution Bulletin study, I forwarded the article and accompanying news release to Albert Perez, Maui Tomorrow’s executive director, for comment. He called back later that day, shocked and disgusted.
“I was down at the Cove the other day,” Perez told me after he read the study. “Had I known this, I wouldn’t have gone.”
Cover Design and effluent flow diagram: Jenn Carter/Darris Hurst