Maui ocean water quality monitoring program celebrates 100th sampling session
Maui’s volunteer-based ocean water quality monitoring program Hui O Ka Wai Ola has been evaluating water quality in Maui since 2016. This week, the program celebrated a special milestone: its 100th sampling week in South Maui.
At a beachside ceremony was held on Monday, July 17 at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Kīhei to mark the occasion.
The 100th sample was collected from Kalepolepo Beach Park by Hui O Ka Wai Ola program volunteers Scott Graves and Harry Hecht alongside Team Lead Maile Sharpe. Members joined dignitaries in testing the sample for turbidity, temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and pH.
Program leaders say long-term coastal water quality monitoring data from the program shows that brown water along North Kīhei has persisted much longer past the winter storms than usual.
Among those in attendance at the event were Senator Angus McKelvey, Representative Terez Amato who presented the program with a Certificate of Appreciation commemorating the milestone.
Also attending were Council member Tom Cook and Mayor Bissen’s Executive Assistant Sharon Banaag. They assisted program staff members Liz Yannell and Ylenia St-Louis in testing the 100th water sample.
About Hui O Ka Wai Ola:
The Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, The Nature Conservancy, and West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative are the three organizations that co-founded and co-manage this unique community program.
The Hui O Ka Wai Ola program tests coastal water quality at 31 sites along South and West Maui and two sites on Lānaʻi every three weeks. Each sampling session in West Maui covers 18 sites stretching from Honolua Bay to Pāpalaua. Each South Maui sampling session covers 13 sites from Mā‘alaea to the ‘Āhihi-Kīna‘u Natural Area Reserve.
The program continues to add or pause sites as needed. Two West Maui sites have been revived, one at Olowalu to support a coral restoration project and the other at Ukumehame to address concerns about coastal erosion.
In a program first, two new sites were added in June this year on Lāna‘i to provide data to address community water quality concerns on that island.
The sampling process takes a week to complete. During the sampling week, about a dozen volunteers wake up to head out in small groups to collect samples and measure water quality on-site with monitoring equipment they bring to each site in their mobile labs, and samples are then shipped to O‘ahu for nutrient analysis at the UH School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology laboratory.
The spark that created the program came in 2013-2014 when now County Council member Tamara Paltin and volunteer Dana Reed noticed an increase in brown water events at DT Fleming Beach in West Maui, which led to beach closures.
Concerned about the water quality, Reed, who had learned how to test ocean water for turbidity through a University of Hawaiʻi Maui College course, started gathering and testing samples. She met Paltin, who shared her worries and had previously reported the issue to the Department of Health.
Their initial data wasn’t accepted due to the lack of a Quality Assurance Project Plan. Undeterred, Reed and Paltin continued documenting water quality, and with the help of Reed’s husband Bill Rathfon and others, they identified Mahana Estates as the source of the sediment runoff.
Through persistent efforts, they brought attention to the problem, leading to a county-mandated shutdown of the project and the improvement of the County’s Best Management Practices, according to program leaders.
This experience highlighted the importance of water quality data, and culminated in the group’s effort to create a citizen’s monitoring group to supplement the data being provided by the State Department of Health.
Developing a plan for the Association Of The Living Waters
To establish a community-based water quality monitoring program, the partner groups collaborated and sought guidance from research scientist Carl Berg. They learned the requirements set by the EPA and the state Department of Health for collecting and analyzing water samples, leading to a meeting involving various organizations and community groups.
As a result, Hui O Ka Wai Ola, meaning “Association Of The Living Waters,” was launched as a partnership between Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, The Nature Conservancy, and West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative. The program’s fiscal management and oversight of finances and payroll were entrusted to Maui Nui Marine Resource Council.
Grants obtained from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation facilitated the creation of the program to purchase water sampling equipment for West Maui and later enabled the program’s expansion to South Maui.
It took time to develop the required Quality Assurance Project Plan and train volunteers to correctly gather and analyze the samples. The first official samples of the new Hui O Ka Wai Ola program were collected in June of 2016.
Today Hui O Ka Wai Ola is led by a steering committee of representatives of the three partner organizations and run by five part-time staff, Liz Yannell, Hui O Ka Wai Ola Program Manager, Ylenia St-Louis and Maile Sharpe, South Maui Team Leads, Emily Johnson and Jess Erwin, West Maui Team Leads, along with over 30 dedicated volunteers.
Community support has come from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Lahainaluna High School, Da Hawaiian Store, and Pineapple Properties LLC who have all provided lab space to the group for its indoor laboratories.
The County of Maui has provided funding every year since 2016, along with several other local companies, foundations, and groups. At the event today, Hui O Ka Wai Ola volunteers received gift certificates from Duke’s Beach House Maui as a mahalo for their efforts.
More than 3,200 samples analyzed, results are shared
The results of the program are shared by Hui O Ka Wai Ola with the community through the website, partner data portals, and regular presentations about water quality conditions along Maui’s leeward coast. A recent presentation can be viewed on the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council’s YouTube channel.
Since 2016, Hui O Ka Wai Ola has collected and analyzed over 3,200 water quality samples from 48 sites and has found that Maui’s coastal waters are often degraded by land-based pollutants, including sediments, fertilizers, and wastewater.
In 2022, Hui O Ka Wai Ola released a findings report “Coastal Water Water Quality Report 2016-2021”. The report also highlights bright spots, such as Kapalua where nitrate levels have dropped significantly in the last two years, Camp Olowalu where turbidity levels declined, and Keālia Pond where pollutant levels are low, likely due to the wetlands’ ability to filter and absorb pollutants before they reach the ocean. Additional information about the program as well as the data they collect can be found at https://www.huiokawaiola.com/.
The program continues to expand its efforts to include new equipment and testing methods to further identify sources of water quality impairment along Maui’s coasts. Its most recent initiative “Brown Water Watch” encourages anyone in Maui County to share pictures of brown water events.