Report: County water systems pass tests for contaminants

Water quality staff members still aren’t sure what caused E. coli in Ualapue well samples in December and June, but county Department of Water Supply Director Dave Taylor assured residents that the water is “absolutely” safe to drink.

“We don’t know what caused it, but we do know it was in the raw water before the disinfection,” Taylor said Thursday. “It was not detected after the disinfection.”

The presence of E. coli bacteria can indicate that water is contaminated with human or animal waste. But finding it in raw, untreated water “is not surprising,” Taylor said.

“The question is, did you get it all out before it got into the distribution system?” Taylor said. “There’s this huge difference between finding these things before treatment and after.”

Aside from the discovery of E. coli, the Ualapue system serving East Molokai passed all other tests, as did the 11 other Maui County water systems, according to the 2016 annual water quality report released late last month.

Every day, department staff test and retest water samples in laboratories accredited by the state and federal government, Taylor said. Every privately and publicly owned water utility in the country must meet the same federal standards.

The nine systems on Maui and three on Molokai were tested for more than 100 contaminants, such as lead, copper, fluoride, barium and nitrate. No system surpassed the levels allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The anomalies included Ualapue, where E. coli was found Dec. 8 in a raw sample collected the day before from the Ualapue shaft. One of five follow-up samples tested positive for E. coli. The department notified residents but added that the water was safe to drink because the bacteria hadn’t been found in the distribution system.

On June 7, the department again detected E. coli in a sample from the previous day. However, the well was declared free of E. coli two days later. Taylor said that the department has increased monitoring at Ualapue to make sure the bacteria do not get past the disinfection stage.

“At the same time we’re working to find out how anything might have gotten into the well,” Taylor said. “Is there a hole that rusted through? Is there a lid that’s not quite sealed? A gasket somewhere that tore? Basically, every possible way . . . is being checked and sealed.”

E. coli also showed up in the Honokohau system in West Maui, prompting a boil-water advisory for residents Nov. 22. But because follow-up samples the next day showed no trace of E. coli, the system was not considered in violation of EPA standards, according to the report.

Meanwhile, in the Wailuku water system, staff detected cryptosporidium in one of nine samples from the Iao Ditch raw water supply. It’s a microbial pathogen that is also caused by human or animal fecal matter and can lead to an abdominal infection if ingested.

However, as with the Ualapue system, cryptosporidium was only detected in untreated water, Taylor said. After filtration, it was safe to drink, and repeat tests showed no sign of the pathogen.

The report also advised residents to take precautions depending on their water system. In the Upper Kula system, the department disinfects water using chloramines, a combination of chlorine and ammonia. People with kidney dialysis machines “may want to take special precautions and consult their physician for the appropriate type of water treatment.” Because chloramines are toxic to fish, customers with fishponds, tanks or aquariums “should also make necessary adjustments in water quality treatment.”

And while lead and copper levels were within a safe range in all systems, the report added that levels can be higher in individual homes depending on the type of plumbing used. Those concerned about elevated lead levels in their homes can ask to have their water tested. If the tap has not been used for 4 to 6 hours, the department recommends flushing it out for 30 seconds to 2 minutes before use.

According to the report, two systems received violations for not testing on time: the county-monitored Lahaina system (which was tested a week later) and the Hoolehua system monitored by the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (tested three months late). Later tests in both instances showed the water to be safe.

Halealoha Ayau, DHHL water resource management specialist, added that the department has received two federal grants totaling $28 million, of which $22 million will go toward upgrading Molokai’s public water system.

“We’re going to do major upgrades to the system, including an estimated $5 million photovoltaic system so we can bring down our highest expense item, which is our electricity bill for our main water pump,” Ayau said.

DHHL also plans to double the capacity of its Kalamaula system with a second 200,000-gallon tank.

To contact the Department of Water Supply, call the administration at 270-7816 or the lab at 270-7550. To report a water-related problem, call the 24-hour hotline at 270-7633. For the full water quality report, visit mauiwater.org and click “Water Quality Report” on the left-hand menu.

For more information on the DHHL water systems, contact (808) 560-6105 or e.halealoha.ayau@hawaii.gov.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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