Repeated brown water incidents raise questions

A state Department of Health inspector will be making a site visit to a residential subdivision project on the west side today as part of an investigation into prolonged brown water incidents during heavy rains at Honokahua Bay, which sits below the project.

“This has been happening for too long, so something has to be done,” said Watson Okubo, monitoring and analysis section supervisor for the department’s Clean Water Branch. “Unfortunately for the developer, there’s nothing much else going on up there.”

At the moment, the project, Mahana Estates, appears to be the only explanation, he said, though county officials have said that the project is complying with grading permits and that officials have observed no water draining from the site recently.

A brown water advisory was issued by the Health Department for the beach Monday. The advisory remains in place. This is part of a pattern that occurs after heavy rains. The public is advised to stay out of Honokahua Bay during the advisories because the runoff may include material from overflowing cesspools and sewer manholes, pesticides, animal carcasses, fecal matter and chemicals, the state Health Department said.

This month alone, brown water advisories have been issued twice, once on April 1 and the other Monday. Okubo said that the incidents have been “happening for quite awhile.”

“There are some natural contributions, but it’s happening too often,” he said, adding that the project’s construction may be contributing to higher levels of turbidity at the beach.

Okubo said that the department’s Maui inspector was planning to visit Mahana Estates today and to complete his report by the end of the day.

The Oahu-based Nan Inc. began construction on Mahana Estates two years ago. Project Manager Pam English said that the company currently is putting in infrastructure, including roads, curbs and gutters, water service and sewer, drainage, electrical and telecommunications systems.

The Health Department regularly visits the project site to review the work there, said English.

“We are permit compliant and look forward to continued discussions with the DOH as the project moves forward,” she said.

The 51-lot development is expected to begin building its first house in the summer and to complete roadway work by the end of the year, English said. She added, however, that the “very first thing we built” were regional retention ponds to help prevent brown water runoff.

“It is an islandwide issue,” she said. “The flashpoint comes when asking if construction is a contributory to this problem, an easy target and an avenue to bring this topic to the forefront.”

The recurring brown water advisories were the subject of a community meeting last week organized by the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council. The gathering included ocean experts and others, and sought to find solutions. The management practices of Mahana Estates developers came up during the meeting.

“There’s concern. There’s no doubt about it,” council Chairwoman Robin Newbold said to the crowd of about 17 people in attendance at the Pacific Whale Foundation in Maalaea.

Among those in crowd was lifeguard Tamara Paltin, a candidate for Maui County mayor, and electrical engineer Dana Reed, who helped bring the issue to the attention of the Health Department and the marine council.

Paltin, who has been a lifeguard on the island for the past 12 years, said she has never seen a beach “run brown” so frequently and “with such little amounts of rain.”

“Every day, I get on my Jet Ski, and I’m splashed in the face with brown water and that’s a bad quality of life for me,” she said. “I constantly have tourists saying, ‘Why can’t I swim here?’ and ‘Why is the water brown?’ ”

Paltin first took notice of the incidents Dec. 19 when a short heavy rainfall caused the beach water to become a dark reddish brown the entire day. She contacted Reed, who gathered samples of the turbid water.

Since then, they have recorded 25 incidents. “That’s a crazy amount,” Paltin said.

In addition to the frequency, Paltin said that the reddish brown water has yielded turbidity measurements that are “off the charts.” Typically, higher levels of turbidity are associated with lower water quality, she said.

Health Department turbidity readings gathered fronting the lifeguard station at Honokahua Bay have routinely reached double digits, compared with beaches in Wahikuli and Honokowai that are in the lower single digits, Okubo said.

“If you look at Kaanapali, you obviously have nice looking water, but when you go up to 10 (on the turbidity scale) you start to notice it’s not as nice,” he said. “I know it can be somewhat subjective to people, but when you’re hitting the 20s and 30s (on the turbidity scale) you’re kind of bad. That kind of turbidity can suffocate coral and introduce other pollutants.”

Reed’s samples upstream of the lifeguard station hit the hundreds – 273 on Jan. 29 and 195 on April 1.

Paltin said that, usually, the first day of the winter season provides the worst brown water; “subsequent flows are not as bad unless there is really heavy rainfall to dislodge something upstream.”

“This winter it’s not getting less brown, it’s just as brown,” she said.

When the residential subdivision project is completed, English said, it will include a drainage system that captures the water that falls on the site and transports the water in pipelines to settlement basins. She said that the basins will filter the water, which eventually will be released offsite.

“We met with the (marine council) to start a dialogue on this issue at a roundtable of concerned people,” English said of a meeting last month. “We are at the table to help educate (people) about methods used during construction that are effective. We are now moving forward with a subcommittee to continue this dialogue and explore potential ways that may go above and beyond current permit requirements.”

David Goode, director of the county Public Works Department, said that the company has been complying with its grading permit and that his department is monitoring the Mahana Estates project “practically every work day.”

“We had them stop new construction and rebuild their erosion control measures numerous times after rain events, which this wet winter has really made a challenge,” Goode said in an email. “We had them build new erosion control measures that went above and beyond their approved plans.”

“Lately, we have noticed nothing come off the site even though there is still brown water coming into the bay,” he said. “This leads us to believe there is something going on mauka that is causing the silty runoff.”

Marine council members are cautious about pointing fingers at the construction company and acknowledged English’s efforts to reach out to the community. However, the group still advocated for solutions to the brown water problem with possible help from the developer.

“The goal is to come up with ideas of how to stop (brown water incidents), not 10 years from now, but what can we do right now to address this and support the county and the developers,” Newbold said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at