Honokahua Bay turbidity levels the highest seen

Honokahua Bay, which includes the popular D.T. Fleming Beach Park, has been murky brown for months – but Friday may have been the worst.

“I had just taken turbidity samples at 12:30 p.m,” Kapalua resident Dana Reed said. “And then it went chocolate brown.”

The West Maui bay has been the focus of local residents and the state Department of Health, which has regularly issued brown water advisories for the public to stay out of the water after heavy rains since late last year. The latest advisory was posted Friday – the second in three days for the bay – and provided the highest turbidity ratings Reed has ever seen.

“I’m literally standing in my home and looking out at a brown plume in the ocean,” she said Friday. “I see it every time it happens.”

Brown water events typically occur 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.

Higher turbidity levels also reduce the amount of light penetrating the water, which can suffocate coral, clog fish gills and injure other marine life, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Typical turbidity levels range in the lower single digits for West Maui beaches such as Wahikuli and Honokowai; levels at Honokahua Bay have routinely reached double digits, Health Department officials have said.

Reed, a retired electrical engineer from Colorado, has been collecting samples with lifeguard and Maui County mayoral candidate Tamara Paltin since January and has recorded more than 25 events at the bay.

On Friday, Reed logged “the highest readings to date.” In the stream leading to the bay, turbidity was just under 2,000, and at the entry point the reading was 1,638, Reed said. The waters off the lifeguard station at D.T. Fleming Beach Park topped off at 97.

“Every day I think, ‘Please don’t rain or rain somewhere else,’ because it’s just getting really nasty,” she said.

The proliferation of brown water incidents at Honokahua Bay has drawn the attention of state Health Department officials, who have begun to examine a residential subdivision project that sits about a quarter of a mile above the bay.

Construction on the 51-lot Mahana Estates began two years ago, and local groups, such as the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, have suggested that the development might be to blame.

Oahu-based Nan Inc. is the contractor for the project and is currently putting in infrastructure, including roads, curbs and gutters, water service and sewer, drainage, electrical and telecommunications systems, a company official said recently. The company is expected to begin building its first house in the summer and to complete roadway work by the end of the year. It is says it is permit compliant.

The Health Department’s Clean Water Branch investigated the site in January, March and April and turned over its findings to the department’s enforcement section.

“Nothing gets sent out to the public until they determine what they’re going to do,” Watson Okubo, monitoring and analysis section supervisor for the Clean Water Branch, said Thursday. “Unfortunately, we cannot provide anything at this time.”

Matthew Kurano of the department’s enforcement section said that officials are aware of the frequent brown water advisories, and that the only permitted construction site within the flow to the bay is the Mahana Estates project.

He added that the area has seen a lot of rain in the last several months and that the project may not be contributing to the brown water incidents.

Kurano could not give a timetable for the investigation.

For the investigation, the enforcement section specifically will be looking at the project’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which is required for all construction sites of more than an acre. The permit contains monitoring and reporting requirements, limits on what can be discharged and other provisions to “ensure that the discharge does not hurt water quality or people’s health,” according to the EPA website. The EPA and state regulatory agencies may issue fines, require corrective actions and possibly file civil and criminal suits, the website said.

Mahana Project Manager Pam English said Thursday that the company met with members of the marine council on-site last week and has formed a task force to “interface with our development team.”

“We set goals for the task force with an umbrella of minimizing brown water in our nearshore waters,” English said in an email. “We discussed the broader issues and decided that for our small committee we would concentrate on construction-related issues, such as development management practices, obstacles and specific solutions.

“We hope in the end to be able to relate a success story of different stakeholders working together that other projects might learn from.”

Larry Stevens, chairman of the marine council’s clean water committee, said that the meeting with English was helpful in understanding the process for developers.

“We are trying to develop a relationship with the project so we can continue to increase our understanding and build upon that to help other developers with reasonable development,” he said. “We’re not saying we know all the answers, but we hope to minimize these brown water incidents in the future.”

As brown water continues to flow into Honokahua Bay, Mike Ritter, a lifeguard at D.T. Fleming, said that he sees 10 to 25 families leave each time there is a brown water incident.

“The focus is on the kids, because I hate to see a family come and get sick because the water is tainted,” he said.

D.T. Fleming Beach was rated America’s best beach in 2006 by coastal expert Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, and continues to attract a large crowd of tourists, Ritter said.

“I don’t think they’d give us that vote of confidence now,” he said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.