Nearshore water-quality data collection expanded

Volunteer-based group adds 12 new testing locations, bringing total to 48 sample sites

Flo Bahr (from left) and Harry Hecht, both new volunteers, and Sofia de la Sota, South Maui regional coordinator for Hui O Ka Wai Ola, undergo a training session in February. The data collection program for measuring water quality has added 12 new locations in South Maui. -- BRUCE FORRESTER photo

A groundbreaking data collection program for measuring water quality has added 12 new locations in South Maui, for a total of 48 sites along southern and western shorelines, researchers said Tuesday.

Data gathered by the volunteer-based Hui O Ka Wai Ola ocean water quality testing program from the past year and a half also will be included — for the first time — into the state’s 2018 Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report.

“It’s all exciting,” said West Maui Watershed Coordinator Tova Callender, who is a member of the hui. “The underlying premise is you can only manage what you measure and if we don’t have a clue what is happening, you don’t have a clue what to manage. Going out to a single bay and getting a single sample, you can’t come to any big conclusions. This is the beginning of closing the gaps in the data which hasn’t been available, but will be available.”

The hui is a partnership between The Nature Conservancy; Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, a community group involved in protection of nearshore waters; the West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative, a group of agencies and organizations focusing on the protection of coral reefs; and the state Health Department.

Last year, the state signed a first-of-its-kind agreement with the hui to create a Quality Assurance Project Plan that expanded data gathering beyond the single Health Department employee responsible for all water-quality monitoring on Maui. Volunteers follow strict monitoring methods and sample for the bacteria enterococcus, a fecal pathogen indicator, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous from runoff, which can damage coral reefs and fish habitats.

The program added the new sites in early March and the program now covers 24 sites from Maalaea to Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve. The west side’s 24 sites cover shore waters from Papalaua Beach Park to Honolua Bay.

In preparation for the expansion, 10 new volunteers completed intensive training in the classroom, the lab and the field, the hui said in a news release. The volunteers worked under the guidance of experienced team leaders and regional coordinators.

Volunteers bring equipment to the field for onsite testing and freeze and ship water samples to the University of Hawaii School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology laboratory on Oahu for additional analysis. A quality assurance officer reviews the data before it is submitted.

Results from the newly tested South Maui sites are expected to be completed this month and integrated with Health Department reports. The department is required by the EPA to prepare water quality reports every two years, which gives specific parameters that help lawmakers determine if a body of water is impaired.

“This data helps to create a picture for the state on how healthy the water is,” said Dana Reed, the hui’s volunteer team leader. “We provide them with data they didn’t have, which is useful for them in accomplishing the larger goal.”

Testing water samples for nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous compounds, can indicate pollution from wastewater and runoff from agriculture, landscaping and golf courses. High nutrient content in the water can cause an increase in growth of invasive algae, which could damage coral reefs.

Hui volunteers plan to continue monitoring South Maui sites every three weeks starting in June, as often as they check West Maui sites, Reed said. The group has come a long way in a short time after launching with 17 sites on the west side in June 2016.

“This effort has really just begun, especially with the new sites,” Reed said. “We’re expanding the geographic scope of what the DOH is able to do, but it is still fairly preliminary.”

Robin Newbold, co-founder and chairwoman of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, added that the goal of the hui is to support efforts by the Health Department and county to improve coastal water quality so that “coral reefs and native fish populations thrive, and our residents and visitors are safe.”

“We want to help identify problem areas, so remedial action may be taken as needed,” Newbold said in a news release.

Research has shown that sustained, nutrient-rich, lower pH submarine groundwater discharging onto nearshore coral reefs off West Maui lowers the pH of seawater and exposes corals to nitrate concentrations 50 times higher than normal, according to the hui. The rate at which coral polyps produce calcium carbonate, which forms the hard structure of the reef, is substantially decreased.

As a result, the reef degrades faster and the reef ecosystem is more likely to collapse.

“With many of Maui’s coral reefs in significant decline, it is critical that we reduce stressors to our reefs on a local scale as quickly as possible,” Callender said. “Our water quality studies will help us understand the source of pollutants, which is the first step in addressing the stress to the reefs caused by impaired water quality and will hopefully make our reefs more resilient to climate change.”

The hui has no immediate plans to add more testing sites, but may make modifications based on changes by the Health Department. Funding also is a concern — the cost of testing each site is around $3,800 per year.

“We expanded in pretty short order,” Reed said. “The last six months have been pretty busy, so we’re not going to add anything. We’re going to make sure all the stuff we’re doing is stable and sustainable both in funding and personnel before we put our sights on the future.”

For more information on Hui O Ka Wai Ola and to review testing results, visit www.huiokawaiola.com.

To donate to the hui, visit https://www.mauireefs.org/membership-and-giving/adopt-a-beach/.

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

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