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Hui celebrates 100th water quality sampling session

George Burnette raises his arms as he and fellow Hui O Ka Wai Ola volunteer, Kit Harris, (left) emerge from the ocean after collecting a water sample at Hanaka‘o‘o Beach Park in Lahaina on Tuesday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

LAHAINA — Longtime ocean water quality volunteer Kit Harris has helped at nearly every Hui O Ka Wai Ola sampling session, including the monitoring program’s 100th round on Tuesday morning in West Maui.

“I’m really grateful that we’ve been able to keep going,” said Harris after collecting a vial of water from Hanaka’o’o Beach Park and demonstrating how the sample is processed for key data collection. “I’m just a volunteer and I like to give back to my community. I love the ocean, and so this is just a small way — they’re aren’t a ton of ways — to give back for water quality.”

After 23 years as a special education teacher at King Kamehameha III Elementary School, Harris retired and found herself knee deep in West Maui’s coastal waters learning how to sample for various parameters, such as ocean salinity, pH, bacteria and turbidity.

“It’s a team who makes it work. It’s a team effort everyday when we go out,” Harris said. “It’s fun, you get out there early in the morning, it’s pristine before the masses arrive.”

The community-based water quality testing team comprises of The Nature Conservancy, Maui Nui Marine Resource Council and West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative, an alliance formed in 2014. They began sampling coastlines the following year to work toward clean water, thriving marine ecosystems, and healthy people.

Maui County Council Member Tamara Paltin pours ocean water into a vial held by Hui O Ka Wai Ola volunteer Kit Harris on Tuesday at Hanaka‘o‘o Beach Park. They were preparing a sample to be tested for turbidity. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

MNMRC Executive Director Mike Fogarty said the coalition, which now consists of community volunteers, scientists, and partner groups, has “allowed us to do so much.”

“When we started this initiative, we did not have comprehensive coastal water quality data to help guide our actions,” said Hui committee member Tova Callender, who is also the Ridge to Reef coordinator. “Now, after these years of working together, we have data from 40 sites along leeward Maui and this matters because you can only manage what you measure.”

To support the Hawaii Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch, the Hui currently monitors and collects comprehensive public data from 29 sites on Maui across West Maui and South Maui.

With the help of about 30 to 40 volunteers, about 100 samples are taken each round of testing every two to three weeks, first thing in the morning.

Dana Reed, who kickstarted and now operates Hui water quality efforts behind the scenes, wrote the initial quality assurance project plan, which is a document that outlines the appropriate procedures that will ensure that the data collected and analyzed meets project requirements.

Hui O Ka Wai Ola volunteers Kit Harris (left) and George Burnette endure a set of waves that rolled in as they were collecting an ocean water sample at Hanaka‘o‘o Beach Park Tuesday morning. It marked the program’s 100th round of sampling west and south Maui waters. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“She changed the world with water quality procedures,” said Maui County Council member Tamara Paltin, who holds the West Maui residency seat, and was a former volunteer. “Ultimately, through asking questions, we got the first county stop-work order on a development that was not following the Clean Water Act.”

Though Paltin, a former ocean safety officer, works in an office now where she can’t see the water everyday nor test it, she said it’s “such a relief and peace of mind to know that you guys, all the volunteers and everyone for continuing on the work.”

During a sampling demonstration at Hanaka’o’o Beach on Tuesday morning, the Hui’s Senior Team Lead Tiara Stark explained to the audience that they typically look for sediments and nutrients from land-based sources that might be polluting water quality.

Some water samples are tested right away at mobile labs or local test sites, including Lahainaluna High School or the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, while others are processed at University of Hawaii labs.

“Without the leadership and volunteers of this organization, we wouldn’t have the data that we need to assess properly what’s going on and address the situation with our reefs,” said Maui County Managing Director Sandy Baz.

The administration and county council will continue to work to provide funding support for the coalition, Baz said.

He added that the reports and data “helps us to make decisions” on environmental issues such as sea level rise, managed retreat strategies and treatment plants.

Through the Hui, data shows that turbidity and nitrogen are the biggest threats in West Maui and South Maui, and that all sites sampled exceed state health department standards for turbidity, Callender said.

She added that their studies have helped them to understand various things such as nutrients generally come from the groundwater, how coastal erosion is driving turbidity in nearshore waters as well as whether local-level actions and decisions are effective.

Based on data, the Hui also knows that Kealia wetland is “incredibly effective” at buffering land-based pollution, which helps to garner leverage to support restoration work, she said.

Callender said that reports provided by the coalition have helped other environmental nonprofits, organizations, agencies and researchers facilitate action plans and earn funding.

“This event marks an important milestone in the long term effort as we work to collect water quality data that leads to the identification of spots that need help with water quality and to inform management,” said Hui committee member Emily Fielding, who is also with the Nature Conservancy. “Together we make a synergistic coalition, together we bring different skills and expertise and resources to the mix and work with our amazing volunteers and staff to make the program last for 100 weeks of sampling.”

As funding and the volunteer community grows, the Hui hopes to expand their work and water quality research.

State Rep. Tina Wildberger, who was an early volunteer on water quality in South Maui, said that county, state and federal partnerships will help to get the funding needed to keep these projects going for “even more and better work.”

“This is a great model that we can employ all over to help solve our challenges as we start addressing climate change and sea level rise,” Wildberger said.

For more information, to volunteer, or to donate, visit www.huiokawaiola.com.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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