Skip to content (press enter)


Hawaiʻi 2023 Clean Water Report

The Surfrider Foundation Hawaiʻi Chapters have released the 2023 Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) water quality report. In 2023, trained BWTF volunteers sampled 65 sites throughout the islands of Kauaʻi (18), Maui (23), and Oʻahu (24) for the presence of enterococcus, a fecal bacteria that indicates the presence of human or animal waste in the water. Elevated levels of enterococcus increase the likelihood that other pathogens that can make people sick may be present.

High bacterial counts indicate the presence of human or animal waste in these waters, which may threaten public health. The data is also important in identifying chronically polluted sites that should continue to be prioritized for ongoing monitoring, as well as potential investigation on behalf of the Department of Health.

Seven sites on Oʻahu and seven sites on Kauaʻi had over 50% of their samples exceed state health standards. At two sites on Kauaʻi (Nāwiliwili Stream Mouth and Hanamāʻulu Stream Mouth), every BWTF sample exceeded state health standards in 2023. In partnership with the Waiʻanae community and the organization Kingdom Pathway, volunteers began collecting samples from Kaupuni Stream that drains into Pōkaʻī Bay. In 2023, 58% of the water quality samples taken from Kaupuni Stream exceeded state health standards. 

rsz_img-8714_1(Above Photo - Volunteers with the Masterson family on Oʻahu sample Kāneʻohe Bay every two weeks). 

For nearly two decades, the Kaua’i Chapter’s Blue Water Task Force has tested surf breaks and stream mouths to complement the beach water quality monitoring program conducted by the Hawai’i State Department of Health. Their program is meant to offer broader protection for all the coastal waters where people like to get into the water to surf, play or just cool off. Their data clearly demonstrates that while the surf breaks typically test clean, many of the streams they test are chronically polluted with extremely high levels of the fecal indicator bacteria enterococcus. One of the worst offenders, Nāwiliwili Stream at Kalapakī Bay, has failed every water test performed since 2016, landing this site on the Surfrider Foundation’s national list of polluted priority beaches.

In July 2023, the Kauaʻi Chapterʻs published its results of a local study to determine which streams on Kauaʻi are polluted with human waste and thus require further attention by authorities. Led by Dr. Carl Berg, the study tested 24 streams, four times each, for both enterococcus and sucralose. Sucralose is an artificial sweetener used in candy, beverages, baked goods and dairy products. Since it passes through the human digestive system unchanged, is resistant to wastewater treatment, and is relatively inexpensive to test for, sucralose has been successfully used to indicate the presence of human sewage in waterways.

All of the streams in the study yielded bacteria counts that exceed the state health criteria for fecal indicator bacteria, while sucralose was detected in 19 of 24 streams tested. In fact, sucralose was detected in at least 50% of the samples collected in 14 streams, indicating that these streams are contaminated with human sewage. 

Local flooding conditions caused by rising sea levels and extreme weather events makes this situation even worse. Connections to sewers and other advanced wastewater treatment systems are needed in order to stop the flow of pathogens and nutrient pollution into local waterways and to reverse the human health and ecosystem damage caused by these systems in many communities.

8B8A38B0-0302-44DE-9C9F-EBB3877D9209_1_105_c (1)The BWTF sites with chronically high bacteria readings are typically located at the mouth of streams or rivers. Chronic pollution at these sites may therefore also be attributed to land-based runoff from upland areas that is carried by freshwater streams and released into the ocean. Families, ocean users, and the public should be aware of the poor water quality conditions in these freshwater flows and seek to avoid them. The public should be particularly aware after heavy rain events that lead to increased runoff and can prompt Brown Water Advisories. Even if you do not see a public notice posted, avoid brown water until conditions clear.

State Testing and Senate Bill 2322

Despite the known presence of bacteria in coastal waters after heavy rains, the Hawaiʻi Department of Health does not sample the water at priority Tier 1 beaches until the brown water has subsided. Not collecting samples during brown water advisories (BWA), however, biases the state’s data to dry conditions. Surfrider Foundation has been requesting that the HDOH sample priority beaches during brown water advisories and provide better warning to the public at the beach when BWA conditions occur. Senate Bill 2322 is currently moving through the state legislative process and would require HDOH to sample the water on its regularly scheduled sampling day - regardless if the water is brown. Surfrider continues to see this as a priority to protect safe recreation for all people in our coastal waters.

Supporting Local Community Interests

On Maui, there have been increased concerns about the water quality along West Maui since the devastating Lāhainā fire in August 2023. WIth partners Hui O Ka Wai Ola, Surfrider Foundation Maui Chapter was able to obtain enterococcus samples from 7 sites within the burn zone from August-December 2023. None of these samples indicated high levels of bacteria. These samples are limited, however, to enterococcus bacteria and are not indicators of other post-fire related contaminants. The Maui Chapter collected additional water quality samples in January 2024 to test specifically for heavy metals and other post-fire toxins. The results are still pending. 

image_67512833 (1)(Above Photo: Volunteer Kristina McHugh analyzes water quality samples from across Maui)

In the summer of 2022, long term water quality concerns prompted the West Oʻahu community at Pōkaʻī Bay to engage in water quality sampling. Specifically, the community wanted to understand if the water quality inside the breakwall is worse than outside, due to a lack of circulation. In 2023, 58% of the samples from Kaupuni Stream, which feeds into Pōkaʻī Bay, exceeded bacteria standards. Additional sample sites within the bay (and further from the stream mouth) met state standards over 90% of the time.