LIHUE — Brown Water Advisories following heavy rain are not to be ignored or taken lightly, according to Watson Okubo, the monitoring and analysis section chief of the state Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch.
“It is important because there’s a lot of stuff that comes out with the brown water,” he said. “We always tell (people), ‘If the water is brown, stay out.’”
But are the health-related advisories effective?
Dr. Carl Berg, project manager of Kauai Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force, says they are neither timely nor comprehensive.
“The real problem is the system isn’t working,” he said.
In the last month, the CWB has issued two BWAs on the island of Kauai, urging the public to stay out of flood waters and storm water runoff due to possible “overflowing cesspools, sewer manholes, pesticides, animal fecal matter, dead animals, pathogens, chemicals and associated debris.”
And with murky water also comes the increased risk of encountering tiger sharks.
The most recent BWA on Kauai was issued last week after a large storm system had already come and gone. By then, Kauai’s rivers and nearshore waters had been chocolate brown for more than 24 hours, according to Berg.
Additionally, the advisory — which was still in effect until mid-day Friday — did not include anything west of Nawiliwili, despite rare but torrential rain on the island’s usually dry Westside.
At Makana Ridge, 6.27 inches fell in a 24-hour period, while Mana saw 7.26 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
Poipu recorded 4.33 inches and Kalaheo had 3.76.
“First,” Berg said of the advisories, “they are quite often delayed, as much as 24 hours. And the second thing is that they don’t necessarily cover all the areas that are being impacted by heavy rain and brown water.”
The CWB is responsible for issuing BWAs in the wake of Flash Flood Warnings by the NWS. However, the CWB must confirm that an advisory is, in fact, necessary, according to Gary Ueunten, an Environmental Health Specialist with the DOH Kauai District Health Office.
That confirmation, Ueunten wrote, can come from a variety of sources, including an environmental health specialist like himself, local TV news coverage, a call to lifeguard dispatch, checking the height of a specific river (such as Hanalei) on the U.S. Geological Survey website or information from a “responsible source.”
CWB staff is cautious about issuing warnings without verifying the situation for themselves, according to Okubo.
When it comes to human health, however, Berg says safe is better than sorry. For that reason, he feels the warnings should be sent out immediately.
“You’re never going to get slammed for erring on the side of caution,” he said. “But you are going to get slammed if you never issue a major warning and there is an outbreak.”
One major problem, Okubo said, is that the Clean Water Branch has been “stretched thin.”
Ueunten, who did not respond to requests for comment, is the lone CWB specialist on Kauai. And like those on other neighbor islands, he is not on call 24/7.
In addition, Okubo said budget cuts within the department have eliminated most of his staff on Oahu.
The obvious fix, in his opinion, is increasing resources and manpower.
Ideally, Okubo would like to have at least one more Kauai specialist — one to cover from Nawiliwili to the north and the other to cover from Nawiliwili to the west.
“If we don’t get information, we don’t know,” he said. “We only got one guy on the island and he can’t be everywhere.”
Berg, who conducts water quality testing as a consultant for DOH, said he has been concerned about public health issues on Kauai for 20 years, and that the ongoing excuse about lack of resources doesn’t cut it.
“Public health is a problem, so the Department of Health should fund it,” he said.
Mel Wills, operations manager at Holoholo Charters, is signed up for all types of weather-related watches and warnings. But for whatever reason, he said he does not receive Brown Water Advisories.
And when they are sent out, Wills agrees they are insufficient.
“It should be way sooner, and way more islandwide and accurate,” he said.
Berg hopes the DOH will not only improve the BWAs, but begin posting signage near effected bodies of water to warn local residents and visitors of the dangers associated with murky water.
In addition to BWAs, the CWB is responsible for posting High Indicator Bacteria Advisories and Sewage Spill Advisories.
Brown means bacteria
On Nov. 10, the DOH issued a BWA for all east- and north-facing shores of Kauai.
Coincidentally, the advisory lined up with the Blue Water Task Force’s monthly efforts to test for Enterococcus — bacteria which indicates contamination from feces of warn-blooded animals, including humans.
At that time, Berg said the test results were a perfect example of the importance of issuing BWAs in a timely fashion.
Of the 20 areas sampled, 13 exceeded the DOH’s single sample pollution standard.
The Hanalei River had a count of 3,873 — 37 times the single sample limit. Huleai River at the Niumalu County Beach Park had 9,804 bacteria in a 100 ml sample — 94 times the pollution limit.
Last week, Berg pulled samples from the Hanalei River at Weke Road and found 238 bacteria in a 100 ml sample, more than double the pollution standard. And on Wednesday, the count was at 192.
Surfrider’s BWTF reminds those who have to get in murky water to rinse off as soon as possible.
Messy, muddy Westside
From his Westside home on Tuesday, Wills said he could see “giant plumes” of mud and sediment stretching from Palama Beach to Poipu.
“It’s brown a quarter mile, (or) half mile out,” he said.
Yet, no Brown Water Advisory was issued for that side of the island.
To make matters worse, Berg said he received phone calls last week from the Westside about bulldozers being used to open up drainage ditches — including Cox and Kinikini — allowing water and debris to flow directly into the ocean.
While Berg suspects the person or entity doing the digging has the proper National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, he is not convinced they provided the proper notification to the CWB.
Okubo confirmed that neither he nor his staff received any notification.
“If they opened up those ditches, it’s essentially a sewage spill,” Berg said, adding that without notification the person is violating the NPDES permit.
Mike Tsuji, supervisor of the CWB’s Enforcement Section, said the permits require notification at least 24 hours in advance of any pollutant discharge into ocean waters.
Violations of the permits are handled on a case-by-case basis, he said.
• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.