MAHA‘ULEPU — The state Department of Health has removed water quality warning signs from the area of the Waiopili Stream at Maha‘ulepu Beach because their tests show no significant health risk in the area.
Community group Friends of Maha‘ulepu on Kaua‘i, however, believes that the waters are unsafe or swimming because of high bacteria counts and are challenging that decision in a complaint filed Feb. 3 with the Environmental Protection Agency.
They’re asking, not only for EPA to force DOH to put the signs back up, but to further investigate the source of elevated levels of the fecal indicating bacteria (FIB) enterococci in the stream.
“The risk to the public is real and until the source is identified there is no way to know how serious the risk is,” Bridget Hammerquist, president of the Friends group said in the complaint. “The warning signs at Maha‘ulepu need to be restored.”
The argument can be boiled down one central question about whether the watershed’s high level of enterococci really indicates a public health hazard.
In 2016, DOH conducted a sanitary survey to answer that question, using a source tracking study called Phylochip, which was “unable to identify human sources in the area that would account for the elevated levels of enterococci in the Mahaulepu watershed,” according to Myron Honda, environmental health specialist with the Clean Water Branch of DOH.
“Because human sources could not be identified as the cause of the elevated enterococci levels in the Maha‘ulepu Watershed, the level of risk was determined to be significantly less than if the sources were due to human sources – sewage,” Honda said.
Friends of Maha‘ulepu disagrees with the main conclusion of the study, which reads: “High concentrations of FIB in both Waiopilli Ditch and Waikomo Stream were not caused by human or animal fecal contamination. Most samples with high FIB concentrations had no observable human or animal fecal signals.”
They point to the presence of a biosolids dump site in operation through 2014 in the watershed as a potential source of water contamination and maintain that the study didn’t test enough sources.
The Friends group partners with local scientists to do water testing at the Waiopili and Waikoko Streams, as well as in other areas throughout the island.
Every week, water tests come back with enterococci levels in the thousands – way above the state-set threshold of 130 parts per 100 ml of water. When put beside water testing results from other areas around Kaua‘i, that location has some of the highest enterococci counts on the island.
Since March, 2014, the group says those counts have been on the rise.
Honda says DOH stands by the conclusions of their study and is further discussing the Friends of Maha‘ulepu complaint with EPA.