The Green Leaf

Beautiful beaches, but how clean?

July 5th, 2011
Hawaii is home to some of the world's most beautiful beaches, but how does the state rank in terms of water quality? NRDC came out with its annual report.

How does Hawaii's beaches rank in terms of water quality? NRDC came out with its annual report.

Hawaii may be home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world (rated tops by many travel publications), but how do they stand in terms of water quality? A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reveals that the state could do better.

NRDC's annual survey of water quality, "Testing the Waters," focuses primarily on bacteria-related beach water quality concerns.

Pollution from stormwater runoff contributed to the majority of 4,215 closing/advisory days in Hawaii last year, according to NRDC's 21st annual beachwater quality report, up from 2,352 days in 2009.

Hawaii is home to more than 400 public beaches stretching along close to 300 miles of coastline. Overall, Hawaii ranked fourth in beachwater quality, but what's still alarming is that three percent of samples exceeded national standards in 2010.

And they were all on Kauai, one of our most beautiful isles:
  • Lumaha‘i Beach on Kauai
  • Kalihiway Bay on Kauai
  • Waimea Recreation Pier State Park on Kauai
Most closing and advisory days in Hawaii resulted from "brown water advisories" caused by heavy rainfall, but the following were causes for concern in 2010 as well:
  • Wastewater plumes were found off the island of Maui due to municipal wastewater that was being injected into wells.
  • The state health department is also working with the Kauai chapter of the Surfrider Foundation to investigate wastewater constituents in the waters of Nawiliwili Bay.
  • The county of Maui shut down power to low-lying coastal wastewater pumps in response to a tsunami warning in late February 2010. If the tsunami had hit, there would have been extensive damage to pumps, and sewage would have flowed to the ocean. Still, four pump stations experienced minor overflows.
  • Mokauea Island in the Ke‘ehi Lagoon was under warning nearly every day in 2010 because several homes were directly discharging sewage into the ocean. The homes now have a dry compost system.
Stormwater runoff was also the primary known source of pollution in beaches nationwide, along with sewage overflows. Runoff from storms and irrigation carries pollution from parking lots, yards, and streets to waterways.

Last year, the city and county of Honolulu reached a settlement with the Sierra Club, Hawaii's Thousand Friends, and Our Children's Earth Foundation, for violations of the Clean Water Act due to illegal sanitary sewer overflows. The city agreed to a $1.6 million penalty as well as additional measures to comply with the act.

One way to prevent pollution from our beaches is to invest in greener land infrastructure — whether it be porous pavement, green roofs, parks, or rain barrels. Anything that helps rain filter back into the ground naturally can help prevent polluted stormwater from reaching our oceans.

Robert Harris, director of Sierra Club Hawaii says: "Plainly, as a state, we need to do a better job of protecting our fragile marine environment for the enjoyment of residents and tourists alike."

You can see the full, detailed report for Hawaii — and look up your favorite beach —  by downloading a pdf file at (scroll d own and click on Hawaii under individual state summaries).

Some simple steps people can take to help prevent beach pollution, according to NRDC:
  • Pick up pet waste.
  • Maintain septic systems.
  • Put swim diapers with plastic covers on babies.
  • Keep trash off the beach.
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