State of the Beach/State Reports/HI/Water Quality

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Water Quality Monitoring Program

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. In recent years, the total funding available for BEACH Act grants has been about $9.5 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there was also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. Again, it was restored at the last minute as part of a Continuing Resolution. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. Unfortunately, in 2017 the situation is even more dire. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. Hawaii was eligible for a $309,000 grant in fiscal year 2016. An estimated $580,000 in state funds was spent in 2007 to support nine of the staff members in the beach monitoring program. More recently, due to state budget cuts the Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch has now lost 4 of its 5 water quality monitoring staff on Oahu. This is a big liability for Hawaii because they are so dependent on tourism, and need to make sure the waters are monitored and protected from waterborne diseases.

Portions of the following discussion were taken from NRDC's report Testing the Waters, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, June 2014. NRDC ranked Hawaii 8th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 7% of samples exceeded EPA's new Beach Action Value (BAV) standards for designated beach areas in 2013.

Hawaii has hundreds of public beaches stretching along nearly 300 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline. The beach water monitoring program is administered by the Clean Water Branch of the Hawaii Department of Health, and beach closing and advisory notifications can be found on its website.

Water Quality Challenges and Improvements

Identifying Sources of Contamination in Nawiliwili Bay and Hanalei Bay

In 2012 and 2013 the DOH worked with Stanford University and the U.S. Geological Survey to identify the sources of fecal indicator bacteria in the waters of Nawiliwili and Hanalei Bay on the island of Kauai. In addition to using a genetic technique called quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) to identify the species responsible for the bacteria found in bay waters, water samples will be analyzed for pharmaceutical and waste indicator compounds using USGS Schedule 2080 and 4433 respectively. With emphasis on two human pharmaceuticals, carbamazepine (an anticonvulsant) and sulfamethoxazole (an antibiotic)that has shown up at other beaches in Hawaii. These pharmaceuticals are present in wastewater but are not destroyed during wastewater treatment, so detecting them indicates the presence of wastewater effluent. As part of this project, the Kauai chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has assisted with biweekly water sampling for nutrients and weekly sampling for fecal indicator bacteria in the Hanalei Bay watershed. Surfrider has been collecting samples from nine sites in the watershed, and its data will be used to complement the pharmaceutical data and the information gathered about the fecal indicator bacteria in Nawiliwili Bay. Pharmaceutical sampling has been completed and data received from USGS. Genetic sampling has been completed and should be receiving final sampling genetic data soon. A report will be completed in 2014.

Investigating Wastewater Disposal in Injection Wells as a Source of Contamination in Maui Waters

The Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility, operated by Maui County, uses injection wells to dispose of sewage that has undergone secondary treatment. Solids, organic matter, and residual suspended matter are removed from this treated wastewater, but the water was not disinfected. It was suspected that the wastewater injected into these wells was making its way to the ocean through underwater seeps. In 2011, the EPA required Maui County to increase wastewater disinfection prior to injection. Maui was on schedule to achieve full ultraviolet disinfection of all wastewater at the Lahaina facility by December 2013.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, University of Hawaii, and DOH have studied the effluent flow from Lahaina's injection wells to nearshore ocean waters since July 2011. The results of this project so far indicate that there is a hydrologic connection between the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility injection wells and the ocean seeps, and that wastewater being injected into the wells is finding its way to the ocean. However, the DOH has detected bacterial indicators at very low levels (detectability levels). The University of Hawaii final draft tracer study report has been completed in June 2013 and a final is due shortly. DOH seep sampling will continue through December 2013 and a report will be completed in 2014.

On the legal front, in 2012 four Maui community groups—Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund, Surfrider Foundation, West Maui Preservation Association, and Sierra Club-Maui Group—filed suit to force Maui County to secure a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which would set limits on the pollutants that can be discharged from the wells. In May 2014, Judge Susan Oki Mollway found that Maui County's unpermitted discharges into 2 of 4 injection wells at the Lahaina facility violate the Clean Water Act. In January 2015, Judge Mollway ruled that discharges into the remaining two injection wells are likewise illegal. “This environmental disaster has been going on for over 30 years,” said David Henkin of Earthjustice who represents a coalition of groups in court. “This latest decision is a wake up call for the County to stop using the ocean as a sewer and finally fix this problem. The County can and should re-use the millions of gallons of wastewater from the Lahaina facility to meet the needs of golf courses, resorts, and other developments, not dump them onto fragile reefs.” Also see Surfrider's campaign page on this issue.

Unfortunately, a study released in 2016 indicated that the problem may be more widespread than first believed.


Sampling Practices

The monitoring season in this tropical state is year-round. Sampling practices, locations, standards, and notification protocols and practices are uniform throughout the state. Samples are taken 1 foot below the surface in water that is knee to waist deep. Hawaii's beach monitoring program prioritizes sampling efforts on the basis of risk of illness to swimmers and frequency of use. Tier 1 beaches are Hawaii's important and threatened beaches; all (except those on Oahu) are monitored twice a week. Tier 2 beaches are moderate-use beaches and are sampled once or twice a week for 6 month rotation. If a Tier 2 beach shows periodic elevated counts for no obvious reason, the Kualoa Protocol (multitracer waste water and nutrient source tracking methodology) is initiated to determine the source of the bacteria levels. If a beach is unlikely to be contaminated and has consistently low fecal indicator counts, then it is assigned Tier 3 status and is sampled at least once every 6 months.

If a warning is issued, daily monitoring is performed until bacteria levels no longer exceed action levels, after which the beach is reopened. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total warning/advisory days than they would if their sampling frequency did not increase after an exceedance was found.

Warnings and Advisories

Standards and Procedures

Hawaii's Department of Health does not have the authority to close beaches. Instead, it issues warnings (for bacterial exceedances), sewage advisories (for known and suspected sewage spills), and stormwater advisories. Warnings and advisories are posted online on the DOH website.

In 2009, Hawaii began using a single-sample maximum standard of 104 cfu/100ml (for beaches that are not sampled at least five times a month) and a 30-day geometric mean standard of 35 cfu/100ml (for beaches that are sampled at least five times a month). Hawaii also uses quantitative information about the presence of Clostridium perfringens (a tracer for human sewage) when making beach warning decisions.

At beaches that are monitored at least five times a month, a warning is posted online when enterococcus exceeds the geometric mean standard and the Clostridium perfringens count surpasses its level of action. When these two things occur, no overriding factors can be taken into account before a warning is issued. At beaches that are monitored less than five times a month, as with all beaches, an exceedance of the single-sample standard is noted on the program's website as soon as sampling results are available, whether or not a warning is issued. By themselves, exceedances of the single-sample standard (including repeat exceedances of the standard) rarely result in a warning.

Preemptive rainfall advisories (brown water advisories) are issued when the National Weather Service issues a flash flood warning and the beach monitoring program determines that stormwater will cause water quality problems. When there is a storm event that does not generate a flood warning but creates turbid waters with debris and possibly dead animals in nearshore waters, a preemptive rainfall advisory may be issued. Brown water advisories can be issued statewide, island-wide, or for specific areas of one island.

If a sewage spill is suspected or if there are indications of human fecal contamination, a sign is posted at the beach immediately and a sample is taken.

Hawaii tests for human health pharmaceuticals, wastewater compounds, and isotopes of nitrogen that are found in sewage sludge if the source of elevated bacteria levels cannot be found. The pharmaceuticals cotinine (a metabolite of nicotine), carbamazepine (an anticonvulsant and mood stabilizing drug used primarily in the treatment of epilepsy and bipolar disorder), and sulfamethoxazole (an antibiotic) have been detected in Hawaii’s ocean waters. Wastewater chemicals that have been detected are 4-nonylphenol, 5-methyl-1H-benzotriazole, bisphenol, triphenyl phosphate, and tri(dichloroisopropyl) phosphate. Nitrogen isotopes associated with sewage have also been detected.

It should be noted that Hawaii excludes certain waters of the state from their monitoring program, since they don't meet the definition of coastal recreational waters in the BEACH Act:

"Section 502(21)(B) explicitly excludes from the definition of coastal recreational waters “inland waters; or ...waters upstream of the mouth of a river or stream having an unimpaired natural connection with the open sea.” In Hawaii, drainage canals, Commercial and Boat Harbors are also not designated for swimming, bathing, surfing, or similar water contact activities. Therefore, Ala Wai Canal, and harbors in the State are not considered recreational waters in this report."

Hawaii's recreational water quality standards generally mirror the federal BEACH Act. Also see Hawaii Administrative Rules, Chapters 11-54 and 11-55.

As noted above, HDOH uses Clostridium perfringens as a secondary indicator. Following is their rationale.

"DOH believes that enterococcus alone is not a good indicator organism for ocean water pollution that may affect human health, since there are other sources of enterococcus in the environment besides human fecal matter. Consequently, it may be difficult to determine human fecal contamination when other sources are present. Dr. Fujioka at the University of Hawaii has been studying this problem since about the mid-1980s. He has found that Clostridia perfringens is a much more human fecal-specific indicator because it is anaerobic (thus not prone to replication in the environment like enterococcus), and there are fewer non-human sources of Clostridia than of enterococcus (non-human sources of enterococcus include pigeons, which are very numerous in Hawaii). HDOH believes that used together, enterococcus and C. perfringens give a much clearer picture of where there is human fecal contamination (from the C. perfringens) and what the health risk from recreational contact is (from enterococcus). Based on this, DOH proposed to include both indicators in the standards. EPA believes that C. perfringens should not be used as an indicator because it has not been shown to correlate to any type of illness. Further, they believe that if both indicators were included in the standard, then actions should be taken when either indicator exceeds the standard. HDOH believes this would be counter-productive since the purpose of including the second standard was to eliminate potential false positive readings that they believe are inherent with enterococcus, not to introduce additional false positives. Therefore, it was decided to leave the bacterial indicator unchanged, and C. perfringens was not included as an official part of the EPA monitoring program, although DOH does use C. perfringens to assist in determining when to post health warning signs at a beach."[1]

Several years ago, HDOH developed a rather complicated "Decision Rule" that was based on the results of monitoring for both enterococcus and C. perfringens. Beaches are classified as:

  • "In Compliance" - less than Single Sample Maximum (SSM)(100 CFU/100 ml) and geo-mean standard (35 CFU/100 ml) for enterococcus and 5 CFU/100 ml limit for C. perfringens
  • "Alert" - If two successive enterococcus samples are greater than 35 CFU/100 ml.
  • "Watch" - If geo-mean of five successive enterococcus samples is greater than 35 CFU/100 ml OR one C. perfringens sample is greater than 15 CFU or two successive samples are greater than 7 CFU or three successive samples are greater than 5 CFU/ 100 ml OR the enterococcus level is greater than the SSM of 100 CFU/100 ml.
  • "Warning" - If four successive enterococcus samples exceed 35 CFU/100 ml AND four successive C. perfringens samples exceed 5 CFU/100 ml AND two successive enterococcus samples exceed the SSM of 100 CFU/100 ml.
  • "Posted" - If five successive enterococcus samples exceed 35 CFU/100 ml AND five successive C. perfringens samples exceed 5 CFU/100 ml AND three successive enterococcus samples exceed the SSM of 100 CFU/100 ml.

Picture of a Honolulu city sign warning of sewage contamination, with Waikiki hotels and Diamond Head in background. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user KeithH.

For a "Warning", the required action is "Initiate Notification Guidelines. Resample immediately." For "Posted", the action is "Post beach; resample and conduct sanitary survey. Maintain posting of beach; check signs morning and afternoon and sample daily."
Note: The above decision rule was developed several years ago and may have been modified to reflect changes in both EPA BEACH Act guidance and Clean Water Branch (CWB) research and experience. Surfrider Foundation has not been able to find information regarding current beach posting procedures.

Surfrider Foundation chapters in Hawaii have been concerned about HDOH's seeming reluctance to post warning signs at beaches and at river mouth areas where testing has indicated persistent high fecal indicator bacteria concentrations. With the help of EPA, Surfrider has worked with HDOH to revise public notification procedures to better protect the health of all beachgoers in Hawaii.

The CWB posts monitoring data on their Clean Water Branch website. Water Quality Advisories for each island are posted on the CWB website. Finally, sampling sites are shown for each island, with the beach stations, a map and a photo of each site.

Other Monitoring Programs and Information

Surfrider Foundation's Kauai, Maui and Oahu Chapters post water quality monitoring data for those islands. Check out these sites before heading to the beach!

Water Quality Standards Maps were published by the Office of Environmental Planning, Department of Health in October 1987 and were updated in 2014. They are provided for general information only in pdf format and are to be used in conjunction with Hawaii Department of Health, Hawaii Administrative Rules, Chapter 11-54, Water Quality Standards for receiving water classifications.

Local community groups, including the Hanalei Watershed Hui (HWH) on Kauai and Surfrider's Kauai Chapter test local favorite beaches and surf sites for bacterial contamination. Testing was originally conducted by HWH using grant funding. After the funding ran out, DOH Clean Water Branch (CWB) entered into an agreement to pay HWH to pick up water samples and gather water quality data for CWB in the Hanalei area following CWB QA/QC protocols and deliver/meet CWB staff and have the samples analyzed at the DOH lab in Lihue. This arrangement was in place for about three years. CWB is now providing testing supplies to the Surfrider Kauai chapter so that they can monitor surf sites on Kauai.

A local community-based group on Oahu, the Kailua Bay Advisory Council (KBAC), is working together with communities to improve water quality in the Ko'olaupoko Watersheds. KBAC has constructed a "Ko'olaupoko Water Quality Information Database" that summarizes Ko'olaupoko water quality data from Waimanalo to Kualoa.

On the Big Island, the Hilo Bay Watershed Advisory Group (HBWAG) is an advocate for the protection and sustainability of the Hilo Bay Watershed ecology. The Group serves the community by fostering cooperation, facilitating education and outreach, and applying scientifically based methods to collect and share watershed and water quality information.

National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) has carried out many water quality research projects in Hawaii.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a website, Water Resources of the Pacific Islands. This site is a valuable source of information including current projects, online reports, publications, and maps, real-time water conditions, and educational outreach material for teachers and students.

University of Hawaii Sea Grant is also a source of information on water quality in Hawaii.

Water Quality Contacts

Hawaii Department of Health
Clean Water Branch (Monitoring, Permitting, and Enforcement)
919 Ala Moana Blvd., Room 301
Honolulu, HI 96814-4920
Phone: (808) 586-4309
Alec Wong
Dale Mikami
Watson Okubo

Hawaii Department of Health
Environmental Planning Office (Water Quality Standards)
919 Ala Moana Blvd., Third Floor
Honolulu, HI 96814-4920
Phone: (808) 586-4337
Harold Lao

Kailua Bay area
Kai Okiwe
KBAC Community Coordinator
Phone: (808) 277-5611

Beach Closures

Storm drains and flood control channels are permanently posted. Posting of swimming health advisories, using 14" x 20" signs, is immediate and does not depend on lab results. The department does not always close a beach if the standard has been exceeded, but instead relies on additional factors, such as the presence of raw sewage, when determining whether conditions warrant a beach closure.

NRDC reported:

In 2013, Hawaii reported 470 coastal beach segments. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 7% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml marine or estuarine water in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in 2013 were Waimea Rec. Pier State Park in Kauai County (44%), Kahanamoku Beach in Honolulu County (36%), Hanalei Beach Co. Park in Kauai County (34%), Lumaha'i Beach in Kauai County (33%), and Analani Pond (Puala'a) in Hawaii County (30%).

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

Sewage Outfalls and Sewage Treatment

There are six sewage outfalls (one each in Sand Island, Fort Kamehameha [military facility], Honouliuli, Mokapu Peninsula, Waianae and Hawaii Kai [East Honolulu, a private facility] in marine waters on the island of Oahu. One inland outfall (Wahiawa Reservoir) discharges effluent that flows to marine waters at Kaiaka Bay.

One outfall is located in Wailua (at Lydgate Park) on the island of Kauai. The island of Hawaii (Big Island) has three outfalls. The Hilo outfall is near Puhi Bay. The Papaikou and Kalaimano Outfalls discharge over cliffs. Maui only has an emergency outfall that goes into injection wells.[2]

Both the Honouliuli plant in Ewa and the Sand Island plant operate under waivers from the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act for full secondary treatment. These plants process sewage using primary treatment, which consists of physical and gravity separation of liquids and solids and then process a portion of the wastewater flow using secondary and tertiary treatment to allow irrigation and industrial reuse. These two plants and one in San Diego, California are the only major sewage treatment facilities in EPA's Region 9 that still operate under a section 301(h) waiver from the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

The Honouliuli plant treats about 27 million gallons of raw wastewater daily and discharges treated water via a Barbers Point deep ocean outfall. The discharge point is at a depth of about 200 feet and is approximately 8,760 feet offshore. The Honouliuli plant has a secondary and tertiary treatment process that can process up to 13 million and 12 million gallons daily, respectively. It serves 340,000 people and processes sewage and other wastewater from residences and businesses in areas including Waipahu, Pearl City and Halawa, as well as waste from liquid waste haulers and sludge hauled from the Wahiawa and Pa'ala'a Kai wastewater treatment plants. The Honouliuli plant is operating under an EPA permit issued in May 1991. The city applied to renew the permit in December 1995, and the permit has been administratively extended since 1996. The city updated the application in 2000 and in August 2004. In January 2009 the EPA issued a decision to not renew the waivers for the two sewage treatment plants.

In August 2009 Kauai County officials issued a request for proposals to expand the Waimea wastewater treatment plant. The project is expected to cost about $12 million, with $7 million is coming from federal stimulus money through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, and the balance financed through the county's capital improvement program. Built in the 1970s, the plant has a capacity of 300,000 gallons per day. It is currently operating at 90 percent capacity. Because it is near capacity, the county is restricting new sewer service connections in the area.

In February of 2009, the USS Port Royal was grounded on a reef off the Honolulu International Airport’s reef runway. Upon investigation, the beach program learned that the Port Royal had discharged sewage while grounded without notifying the state, and that Navy ships may be discharging sewage to Hawaiian waters on a regular basis without notification.

Heavy rains in early November 2007 contributed to a 2 million gallon sewer spill from the shipyard area of the Naval Base into Pearl Harbor on Oahu. During the same rainy period, the Hawaii Department of Health Clean Water Branch issued a "Brown Water Advisory" for the island of Oahu due to "rainfall runoff that may contain pollutants from overflowing cesspools, sewer manholes, animal wastes, pesticides, and associated flood debris."

Major sewer spills occurred on Oahu in early 2006. A sewer spill in Honolulu due to a line break released an estimated 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal and closed beaches in Waikiki. Following the sewage spill, Surfrider Foundation's Oahu Chapter held public meetings and formed a Wastewater Spill Response Committee that meets to improve Oahu’s water quality and reduce the impact of future spills. Unfortunately, history repeated in August 2015 when heavy rains and equipment failures caused another large sewage spill into the Ala Wai Canal. More on this.

On Maui, poor maintenance of sewage treatment facilities in the 1990s resulted in hundreds of sewage leaks onto land, streets and streams, in some cases contaminating beaches. In 1999, EPA and the State of Hawaii reached a settlement with Maui County ensuring better maintenance to prevent sewage spills. Maui also agreed to undertake a $600,000 project to expand the use of treated wastewater for irrigation, thus extending the island's limited supply of fresh water. EPA settled a similar case with Oahu County in 1994.

Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle submitted a supplemental budget request in January 2004 that earmarked $18.2 million for capital improvements at the Waimanalo Wastewater Treatment Plant. The improvements will allow the plant to operate at its full design capacity (1.1 million gallons per day) while protecting the public's health and the environment.

The budget request also included $14 million for statewide improvements at state parks. The largest portion of this is $9 million for cesspool replacement. Twenty-four of Hawaii's 54 state parks have large capacity cesspools that need to be replaced by April 5, 2005 as a result of a December 7, 1999 U.S. EPA rule.

The following is a quotation from the book "Atlas of Hawaii, 3rd Edition", edited by Sonia P. Juvik and James O. Juvik, University of Hawaii Press, 1998, pg. 300:

"Sewage treatment levels vary throughout the state, although most collected sewage is subjected to secondary treatment. On Maui tertiary treatment levels are achieved, while at two major facilities on Oahu sewage receives only primary treatment before being discharged via outfalls into the ocean. Large areas of most islands remain without sewerage systems, and wastes are discharged into cesspools or septic tanks."

Counties have mapped most of the locations of storm drains and sewage outfalls. These maps are updated annually and are available to the public. It is obvious from the number of contacts below that responsibility for these is spread across a number of offices in the Department of Health and each individual county.

A 2008 publication from the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), University of Hawaii included a chapter on Sewage Treatment and Polluted Runoff that described conditions on Oahu and throughout Hawaii as of that date.


In June 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced an agreement with the U.S. Army to close four illegal large capacity cesspools on Oahu and eight on the Big Island. The Army will pay a $100,000 fine, the first time EPA has imposed a civil penalty against a federal government facility for operating banned cesspools. EPA found that the Army continued to use the cesspools despite a 2005 ban under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act’s Underground Injection Control program. The Army had failed to close three large capacity cesspools at Wheeler Army Airfield and one at Schofield Barracks on Oahu, as well as eight on the Big Island at the Pohakuloa Training area and the Kilauea Military Camp. As a result of EPA’s enforcement action, the Army has closed one cesspool, and replaced two others at Wheeler Army Airfield and another at Schofield Barracks with approved wastewater treatment systems. Under the settlement agreement, the Army must also close or replace all eight of the large capacity cesspools still in use on the Big Island. More. In August 2016 the EPA enforcement actions continued.

In June 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued penalty orders fining the County of Hawaii and the owner of Johnson Resort Properties for failing to close large-capacity cesspools, which have been banned since April 2005. As noted above, EPA issued a compliance order to the County of Hawaii in 2005 to require closure of 30 large-capacity cesspools. Two of the cesspools accepted untreated waste from 27 residences in the Komohana Heights Subdivision in Hilo. The County failed to close the Komohana Heights cesspools by the required deadline. However, they subsequently installed a new wastewater collection system to connect the homes to the existing county sewer. The County also provided service to 14 additional homes served by individual small-capacity cesspools, which are not prohibited by EPA’s regulations. The County of Hawaii will pay a $40,700 penalty for failing to meet the cesspool closure deadline.

Additionally, EPA has settled with Johnson Resort Properties and its owner, Robert Johnson, for failing to close three large-capacity cesspools that service two apartment buildings in Kona. The settlement with Mr. Johnson will result in a supplemental environmental project (SEP) to install an advanced wastewater treatment system for the apartments. The system will provide tertiary treatment of all domestic wastewater from the properties prior to underground injection, and will result in a significantly greater level of treatment than required by state law. As a result of the greater environmental benefit associated with the SEP, EPA agreed to reduce Mr. Johnson’s penalty; he will pay an administrative fine of $17,500.

A large-capacity cesspool is one that discharges untreated sewage from multiple dwellings, or a non-residential location that serves 20 or more people per day. Cesspools are used more widely in Hawaii than in any other state. Cesspools discharge raw sewage to the ground, allowing disease-causing pathogens and other contaminants to potentially pollute groundwater, streams and the ocean. Federal regulations, which prohibit large-capacity cesspools as of April 2005, do not apply to single-family homes connected to their own individual cesspools. This article mentions a voluntary program to try to encourage homeowners in the Puako area of the Big Island to replace their cesspools with with aerobic treatment units. The article also quotes an engineer for the state Department of Health’s Wastewater Branch, that there are approximately 50,000 cesspools on the Big Island.

Cesspools are substandard systems. They don’t treat wastewater, they merely dispose of it. Cesspools concentrate the wastewater in one location, often deep within the ground and in direct contact with groundwater, causing groundwater contamination. This groundwater flows into drinking water wells, streams and the ocean, harming public health and the environment, including beaches and coral reefs. There are approximately 90,000 cesspools in the State, with nearly 50,000 located on the Big Island, almost 14,000 on Kauai, over 12,000 on Maui, over 11,000 on Oahu and over 1,400 on Molokai. Watch this video to learn more about the water quality impacts of cesspools in Hawaii. Hawai`i was the only state in the US that still allowed construction of new cesspools, until new cesspools were finally banned in 2016. Approximately 800 new cesspools had formerly been approved for construction in Hawai`i each year. To begin to address the cesspool problem, the Department of Health (DOH) initiated the process to accept written comments and hold a public hearing on proposed changes to Hawaii Administrative Rules (HAR), Chapter 11-62, Wastewater Systems. Proposed changes include prohibiting the installation of new cesspools and requiring connections or upgrades of existing cesspools to septic systems within 180 days after sale of property. A list of all proposed changes may be found in DOH's Rationale document. Learn more.

A 257-page report (September 2014) by UH Manoa for DOH is Human Health and Environmental Risk Ranking of On-site Sewage Disposal Systems for the Hawaiian Islands of Kauai, Molokai, Maui and Hawaii. The report includes some nice maps showing the highest risk areas. Following are some quotes from the report's Executive Summary:

"Nearly half of the OSDS in the state are located on Hawaii Island. However, the highest OSDS density is on Kauai where there are approximately 32 units per square mile (mi2). Molokai, which is the least developed of these islands, has the lowest total population (7,345) and OSDS density (approximately 7.5 units/mi2)."

"On Kauai, nearly all of the wells near the coastal communities may have elevated levels of ODGWN with their zones of contribution. This is a particularly serious problem in the Wailua/Kapaa area where modeling indicated highly elevated ODGWN concentrations."

"The study results showed that Kauai streams are most at risk to degradation due to contributions from OSDS. The prevalence of perennial streams and high-level aquifers increases the area where groundwater likely discharges to surface water. Kauai also has the highest modeled ODGWN concentration of the islands assessed. The highest ODGWN concentrations occurred within perennial watersheds on the east side of this island, suggesting that these streams are at elevated risk from OSDS effluent contamination."

"The islands of Hawaii and Kauai have the highest percentage of coastal zones at elevated risk to OSDS impact. On Kauai, the south shore area from Poipu to Hanapepe, Nawiliwili, and the Wailua/Kapaa areas have the highest scores due to the high concentration of OSDS."

In June 2015 Governor David Ige signed Act 120, which gives $10,000 income tax credits for homeowners in areas near water sources to upgrade their cesspools to more effective wastewater treatment systems.

For several years, Surfrider Foundation's Hawaii Chapters have been working with the Dept. of Health to support changes to Hawaii's Administrative Rules (HAR) to ban the installation of cesspools. This advocacy paid off on March 11, 2016 when Gov. Ige signed into law the new rule changes to ban new cesspool installations. “Cesspools provide no treatment, and inject about 55 million gallons of raw sewage into Hawaii’s groundwater every day, potentially spreading diseases and harming the quality of drinking water supplies and recreational waters,” Gov. Ige said at the signing announcement. The new HAR changes would also put into place the $10,000 tax credits (see above) that Surfrider's Hawaii Chapters helped pass in 2015 for homeowners to upgrade their cesspools to better septic systems in certain areas near water sources.

Injection Wells

In July 2007 the Maui County Council heard a presentations on two reports that had been published earlier in the year - one on rampant algae growth on reefs around Maui and the other on evidence suggesting links between the algae and wastewater injection wells. The presentation caused at least one Council Member to demand that the state close down injection wells used to dispose of treated wastewater near the shoreline. In April 2010 County Council members debated proposals to require the Department of Environmental Management to come up with a plan to recycle more wastewater and conduct sampling for water contamination before spending money to rehabilitate existing injection wells. The Maui County Website has information and answers to frequently-asked questions on the use of injection wells for wastewater disposal. Surfrider Foundation's Maui Chapter is part of a coalition of environmental organizations that has been working several years on this issue.

Cruise Ships

Ocean pollution caused by sewage and “graywater” releases from cruise ships is a growing concern. Increasing traffic from cruise ships and a new "super ferry" have raised concerns about harbor expansions at Kahului Harbor on Maui and elsewhere. An organization on Maui that is concerned about the impacts of a harbor expansion is Save Kahului Harbor. The organization is also concerned about bacterial infections that may be related to exposure exposure to sewage-contaminated ocean water.

Water Quality Contacts (Runoff and Outfalls)

Sewage Outfall and Storm Drain Contact Information:

  • Department of Health: Sanitation Branch: (808) 586-8000
  • Department of Health: Wastewater Branch: (808) 586-4294
  • Department of Health: Clean Water Branch: (808) 586-4309
  • Department of Health: Environmental Planning Office: (808) 586-4337
  • Department of Health: Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office (808) 586-4394
  • Hawaii County Public Works: (808) 961-8338
  • City and County of Honolulu Department of Environmental Services (808) 527-6663
  • Kauai County Public Works (808) 241-6616
  • Maui County Public Works (808) 243-7414

Information on Hawaii's Polluted Runoff Control Program can be found here.

Information on the Hawaii DLNR Commission on Water Resources Management can be found here.

Perception of Causes

HDOH staff contacted by Surfrider Foundation indicated they felt that the water quality indicators the state uses do not accurately represent water quality. Also, staff and lab support lack necessary funding. The funding situation became acute in 2009 due to the weak economy and other factors. Four of the six Honolulu monitoring staff and clerical staff were scheduled for layoff on November 13, 2009.[3]

Hawaii funded a study on Maui that is a continuation of “proof of concept” reconnaissance methods for wastewater and nutrient source tracking in recreational waters. Multiple wastewater tracers were detected in marine water column and algae samples at Kihei and Lahaina. In a separate source-tracking research effort, monitoring data from 2008 were used to identify several possible sites for a Water Environment Research Foundation-funded study.

Hawaii's Integrated Reports (2008/10 State of Hawaii Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report), as well as previous water quality assessment reports, information on the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) process, TMDL Technical Reports and Implementation Plans for approved TMDLs are available on DOH's Integrated Report and Total Maximum Daily Loads website.

HCMP is conducting a three phased project to address the cumulative and secondary impacts (CSI) of stormwater managment. The project is outlined in and funded by the Federal Coastal Zone Managament Act (CZMA) Section 309 Enhancement Area Grant Program, Cumulative and Secondary Impact, for FY 2006-2010 (Section 309 Assessment and Strategy (2006-2010).

Phase 1 - Stormwater Impact Assessment Project

Phase One of the project involved the examination of Hawaii’s regulatory structure in which stormwater infiltration and runoff is assessed. By evaluating EIS documents for their assessment of cumulative impacts it was found that oftentimes, stormwater impacts, and especially secondary and cumulative impacts, receive only cursory mention with limited analysis. Our research noted the existing state of practice to incorporate EIS stormwater mitigation measures as conditions in by simply asserting the need for compliance with other Federal, State, or County regulations/codes to be enforced later during various project development permits.

Phase 2 - Stormwater Assessment Pilot Study in the Waiulaula Watershed, West Hawaii, Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3

In Phase Two of the project a pilot test was performed involving evaluation of past assessment practices and the new assessment method that was proposed in the Phase One final report. To evaluate these two methods a hypothetical future development in Waiulaula watershed in West Hawaii was applied. An emphasis on mitigation of post-construction impacts was conducted because existing federal regulations require satisfactory mitigation of impact during the construction period. The results obtained were compared to results obtained using a state-of-the-art quantitative modeling study. To assist in the interpretation, existing studies and hypothetical proposed development in the context of state and county general plans were examined.

In Phase Three we refined the methodologies developed in Phases One and Two through collaboration with professional in the field. Utilizing a focus group of planners, engineers and architects to ensure the guidance methodology is reasonable, implementable and appropriate we developed the step-by-step guidance document, Stormwater Impact Assessment: Connecting primary, secondary and cumulative impacts to Hawaii’s Environmental Review Process. Through training sessions held in Honolulu, Wailuku, Lihue, Hilo and Kona, we to provided an introduction to the use and implementation of the guidance document for reviewing and commenting on EISs in regards to CSI on project and regional stormwater management to representatives from federal, state and county agencies.

Although the guidance document identifies the rules and regulations that will be enforced, it is not prescriptive in nature to provide site designers maximum flexibility in selecting control practices appropriate for the site. The guidance document does not impose any legally binding requirements on county, state or federal agencies and does not confer any legal right or impose legal obligations upon any member of the public.

A 2008 publication from the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), University of Hawaii included a chapter on Sewage Treatment and Polluted Runoff that described conditions on Oahu and throughout Hawaii as of that date.

Harmful Algal Blooms

Harmful algal blooms are rare in Hawaii, and there is no monitoring program for detecting them. Cases of ciguatera fish poisoning, which is caused by consuming fish that have concentrated levels of ciguatoxin, have been documented. Ciguatoxin is produced by microorganisms that live in tropical waters and is found in greater concentrations in fish that are at higher levels in the food chain. The Department of Health warns people to refrain from eating reef fish in affected areas when cases of ciguatera poisoning are reported. Nearly 300 cases of ciguatera poisoning were reported in Hawaii between 1998 and 2002.

Public Education

Hawaii’s beach monitoring program participates in numerous elementary school environmental fairs and beach cleanup events, educating the public about actions they can take to reduce beachwater pollution. The state has an ongoing storm drain stenciling project that warns people not to throw trash into storm drains because it will end up in the ocean. In addition, Hawaii uses public service announcements (video and audio), brochures, signs, and their Clean Water Branch website to educate the public about water quality issues, including What You Can Do.

The Kailua Bay Advisory Council (KBAC) website was mentioned above. Their Educational Resources page has a lot of useful information regarding Best Management Practices (BMPs), which are actions anyone can take to improve water quality. There is also useful information on water quality parameters.

The Surfrider Foundation Oahu Chapter has been organizing monthly beach clean-ups for well over a decade. Also helping to clean Oahu beaches are the City and County of Honolulu, Da Hui/Wolfpack, Sierra Club, Ocean Conservancy (Get the Drift and Bag It), Sea Turtles International,, NOAA Marine Debris Program, Lanikai Association, many schools, lifeguards, and other groups. Surfrider Foundation chapters on Maui, Kauai and in Kona and Hilo on the Big Island help clean their island beaches with an assortment of other groups.

Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawai`i (B.E.A.C.H.) is a non-profit, volunteer organization concerned with bringing awareness and solutions to the problem of marine debris and litter on Hawai`i’s beaches. B.E.A.C.H. co-ordinates beach clean-ups, litter prevention campaigns and presentations to schools and community organizations in order to educate and bring awareness to the need to care for Hawai`i’s beaches, coastline and marine life.

Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii (SCH) hosts large scale beach cleanups across the state. With the mission of “inspiring local communities to care for their coastlines through hands-on beach cleanups” SCH hopes to create coastal stewards after every cleanup who can help to sustain the beauty of our fragile coastlines. Along with large-scale coastal clean-up events SCH also runs educational programs focused on marine debris and plastic pollution, public awareness campaigns, waste diversion educational services, and corporate team building events.

The HCMP contracted for the development of a workbook LID Hawaii: Practitioner’s Guide covering building and site design techniques for managing stormwater, drainage, and small-scale wastewater systems to reduce nonpoint pollution. A technical workshop was held in each county and in addition, the contractor held several meetings with county staff to discuss LID approaches and county concerns and restrictions.

The HCMP hired a contractor to develop guidance on the various treatment and disposal systems available. The Onsite Wastewater Treatment Survey and Assessment describes the advantages and constraints of different systems, to assist practitioners with choosing the best system for a site. From the report:

"Individual Wastewater System (IWS) permit requests in the State almost quadrupled between 2002 and 2006, indicating increasing development in areas—primarily rural areas—not served by public or private sewer systems. Residential and commercial development in rural areas require reliable and effective onsite wastewater treatment systems; therefore, there is a need for public education on the capabilities and limitations of onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS). Unlike centralized treatment works and disposal systems, there is currently no official guidance in the selection of an appropriate onsite wastewater system for a given site in Hawaii."

The HCMP has provided funding to the Hilo Bay Watershed Advisory Group to develop a water quality monitoring program and a website to bring the community together to understand and protect the ecology of the Hilo Bay Watershed.

The Hawaii Watershed Experience integrates drama, field experiences, visual demonstrations, record keeping, chemistry, conservation themes, problem solving, art and music to accommodate various learning abilities. Since 2002 the Healthy Hawaii Coalition (HHC) team has brought the program to over 50 elementary schools across the state, reaching more than 6,000 students. In 2004, the state DOH’s Clean Water Branch and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency jointly granted funds to HHC to expand the program to reach Pearl Harbor and West Maui. In 2005, an additional grant enabled The Hawaii Watershed Experience to make special presentations on Kauai and Molokai, as well as the North Shore and Windward side of Oahu. Beginning in 2010, HHC was able to offer The Hawaii Watershed Experience at no cost to public and private schools on every island.

Marine Debris

In January 2010, NOAA and several partners in Hawaii announced a comprehensive long-term plan to actively assess and remove plastics, derelict fishing gear, and other human sources of marine debris from coastal waters and coral reefs along the island chain. The plan, a first of its kind for the nation, will be instrumental in protecting the state’s coastal communities and marine life from the thousands of pounds of marine debris that wash ashore each year. In the preceding two years, numerous governmental, non-governmental, academic, industry, and private business partners from across the state worked alongside NOAA’s Marine Debris Program to develop the Hawaii Marine Debris Action Plan. Building on significant ongoing and past marine debris community efforts, the plan establishes a comprehensive and cooperative framework for marine debris activities and projects across the state to reduce:

  • the current backlog of marine debris;
  • the number of abandoned and derelict vessels;
  • land-based debris in waterways; and
  • fishing gear and solid waste disposal at sea

Numerous strategies and activities fall under each of these goal areas, many of them already underway by Hawaii’s marine debris partners. These include debris removal efforts, emergency response, prevention and outreach campaigns as well as increasing research and technology development. Progress will be tracked and measured for each of these areas.

General Reference Documents

EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.

NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, has released an interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.


  1. Terry Teruya, DOH, written communication, December 13, 2002.
  2. Eugene Akasawa, personal communication. August 2, 2000.
  3. Surfrider Foundation 2002 State of the Beach Report survey response

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