LIHU‘E — More than half of stream mouths and surf spots around Kaua‘i tested by the citizen science branch of the Kaua‘i chapter of Surfrider Foundation had chronically high levels of bacteria in 2019.
That’s according to an annual report from the Kaua‘i Surfrider Blue Water Task Force (BWTF), which does monthly testing of water quality at many sites around the island. Volunteers test for the fecal indicating bacteria enterococci, which can indicate the presence of other bacteria that could be dangerous for human health.
According to BWTF coordinator John Alderete, 70% of BWTF testing sites around Kauai were found to exceed the levels deemed acceptable by public health standards and regulations on the days they were tested.
Further, more than 70% of tested sites were found to have chronic bacterial pollution issues on the testing days — meaning these sites exceeded the acceptable bacterial contamination levels more than half of the time throughout the year.
Sixty percent of tested sites had all of their water samples test over the acceptable bacterial contamination levels throughout 2019.
Some of those places with chronically high bacteria counts include Anahola Stream and Waiopili Stream. Results from the most recent February 2020 bacteria counts include high levels at places all around the island including Lumahai Stream, Hanalei River, Wailua Beach Park, Rock Quarry surf, and Waimea rivermouth.
Alderete, said there could be a potential correlation between rainfall and high counts of enterococci in the water due to runoff, pointing out the change in rainfall frequency in the past couple of years on Kaua‘i and indicating the pattern has shifted more toward year-round rainfall.
The water quality report is the first internal annual report of its kind to come out of the Surfrider BWTF and is the result of countless volunteer hours, including those of Alderete, who joined Surfrider BWTF in the summer of 2019.
He says he decided to create the report and share some of it with TGI newspaper because an educated public can help create better systems to monitor Hawai‘i’s waterways and clean up pollution in Kaua‘i’s streams and surf spots.
“My desire to compile our water testing data was driven by the fact that information is key and is both a resource and a rallying cry,” Alderete said. “(And) legislation, policy implementation and enforcement are crucial to tackle our Kauai water pollution issues.”
In 2019, the state Department of Health came out with results of a Berkeley Lab-commissioned test that uses different methods of water quality testing than the Surfrider BWTF uses. DOH testing of certain sites was ongoing before the 2019 release of the results of the study.
In discussion of those results, Berkeley researchers said their PhyloChip microbial source tracking tool showed high bacteria counts in the Kauai watersheds weren’t necessarily from human sources and that enterococci, sometimes found naturally in tropical soils, doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of bacteria harmful to human health.
Alderete maintains “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” in this situation, and that further testing is needed to determine the true source of the enterococci bacteria in the water. He also points out collaboration between state entities and citizen science groups can be valuable.
“2019 in review suggests that more studies are required, preferably at the state level, to help us understand the precise causes of these high levels of bacterial contamination,” Alderete said.
Environmental water quality monitoring, even at the citizen science level, aims to provide information required for safeguarding the environment against adverse biological effects from contamination sources, Alderete says, and working with county and state entities on data collection and analysis can be valuable.
“Similar to what is being seen throughout the world where water pollution from bacteria, chemicals, sewage, and plastics, change water networks into hazardous environments for people and ecosystems, Kauai’s waterways, surf, and beach sites are also challenged,” Alderete said. “Water use is a way of life here on Kauai, and the public needs to have information on the health of their waters to make informed use decisions.”