The Sciences

Citizen science pushes Hawai’i Department of Health to act on beach pollution


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For the past seven years, citizen scientist volunteers with the Kaua'i chapter of the Surfrider Foundation Beach Watch Task Force have been testing the waters at 27 recreational sites along the Kaua'i coastline. This summer they achieved a victory when the Hawai'i Department of Health (HDOH) finally acknowledged the concerning levels of pollution in local streams and beaches.

Volunteers with the 31 Blue Water Task Force chapters take water samples several times a year. Samples are compared to federal and local standards and results are publicly available at their website. Photo Credit: The Surfrider Foundation 2015 Annual Report. Beach Watch Task Force (BWTF) is the all-volunteer branch of The Surfrider Foundation, an advocacy group committed to protecting water quality. BWTF chapters test the water quality of ocean and bay beaches, and freshwater sources not monitored by state or local government agencies. Water samples are tested against EPA and state standards for safe recreational water. Results are publicly available on their website. Citizen scientists volunteering with BWTF Kaua'i have found consistently high levels of enterococcal bacteria in a number of streams and beaches, counts well above the cutoff for safety. Enterococci inhabit the gut of humans and other mammals, and can be an indicator of fecal matter. In their 2015 Annual Report, BWTF Kaua'i stated that seven of the streams tested “failed to meet the state bacteria standard over 90% of the time they were tested.” Pollution can come from various sources. Storm water runoff can carry pollutants from urban areas and from agricultural activities including chemical fertilizer and animal waste. Another potentially troubling source of pollution may come from cesspools, a common sewage treatment option in Hawai’i. An estimated 55 million gallons of raw untreated wastewater enter Hawai’i's ground water daily. Earlier this year, Governor David Ige banned construction of new cesspools, making it the last state to so. BWTF Kaua'i has been pressuring the HDOH to acknowledge the health risk and to post warning signs at these sites. While past testing by HDOH agrees with BWTF Kaua'i findings, HDOH has argued that infrequent recreational use at these sites makes signage low priority.

Public warning signs such as this one recently posted at Gillin’s Beach, Kaua'i help the public stay informed about health hazards. Photo Credit: Hawaii Department of Health In July, the EPA stepped in and mandated that HDOH post warning signs at Maha’ulepu Beach and Gillin’s Beach and to investigate pollution levels at Nawiliwili Stream. As of mid-September, HDOH has posted six warning signs at three beaches in compliance with EPA requests. September, HDOH and BWTF Kaua’i announced they will be partnering improve public awareness of these health hazards. The Surfrider Foundation finds this encouraging. “Public notification is the first step in building community awareness of local pollution problems, which then helps motivate government agencies and stakeholders to come together to identify and fix the sources of pollution,” said Mara Dias, BWTF Water Quality Manager in an online statement. “Surfrider advocates for signs to be posted firstly to protect public health, but ultimately to empower local communities to take action to address and solve water quality problems.” See if there is a BWTF in your area, review their data on your local beaches, and learn more about other Surfrider community initiatives here.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

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