Water not regularly tested at Ala Wai Canal

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It’s a stinky mess that the city and state continues to sift through.

A sewage spill at the McCully Shopping Center remains under investigation after raw sewage was seen flowing onto the streets for hours on Saturday morning and was left unreported until KHON2 got wind of it.

The McCully Shopping Center could be slapped with a $10,000 fine for the spill.

The fine would have been up to $25,000 if the sewage had reached a waterway, like the Ala Wai Canal.

KHON2 learned that no actual water samples were taken to see if the sewage made its way into the canal because the water is “too dirty” and the levels are too high to know for sure.

So KHON2 contacted scientists with University of Hawaii Water Resources Research Center to get our own water samples to find out just how clean, or dirty, the Ala Wai is.

The UH Water Resources Research Center augments the work being done by the Department of Health and supports them in the areas where they may not have the time or the staffing to do.

The results KHON2 got Wednesday just give us a snapshot in time of the water quality.

The UH researchers regularly test water quality around the island.

“We sample once every month and sometimes more often,” said Dr. Marek Kirs, Assistant Researcher with the UH Water Resources Research Center.

KHON2 started by gathering samples Tuesday from the mouth of the Ala Wai Canal, Ala Moana Beach Park, and water from the Ala Moana Beach showers. Then, we took water samples of the Ala Wai near the McCully Street Bridge.

Dr. Kirs took the samples back to the lab to test the DNA and bacteria levels. After 24 hours of incubation, we measured the presence of two types of bacteria that are commonly found in human intestines.

This is the same way the state measures the cleanliness of the water. The water sample that came back with the most bacteria, was not surprisingly, the Ala Wai Canal near the McCully Street bridge.

“We detected seven colonies of enterococci,” Dr. Kirs said.

The for the second test…

“No, that doesn’t have any,” Dr. Kirs said.

Harmful bacteria detected in the Ala Wai sample likely came from sewage contamination, but there’s no way to trace it back to the McCully spill. Also, it was not at the levels that raise red flags by the state or federal standards.

In fact, the UH researchers say it was one of the cleanest water samples they’ve seen of the Ala Wai Canal.

“After the Flossie, after the storm, and we got thousands,” Dr. Kirs said.

They’ve seen bacteria levels fluctuate by the thousands based on the amount of rainfall, runoff, and change in ocean tides.

So KHON2 wanted to get the bigger picture to find out just how often the Ala Wai does reach dangerous levels.

The state Clean Water Branch’s website lists all their testing locations and data, but when users click on any location along the Ala Wai Canal they get this message: “No samples available.”

KHON2 learned the water is not regularly tested at all.

“Over recent years, that amount of monitoring has been dramatically cut back. It’s been roughly cut in half,” said Gary Gill, Deputy Director for the Environmental Health Administration.

It’s not just at the Ala Wai. The state cut its water sampling locations from 300 beaches to 150.

“For example, the water quality monitoring crew on Oahu has been reduced to one person,” Gill said.

“The state says the public needs to also exercise their own judgment on whether water is clean or not, and not just rely on signs or experts,” Gill said.

“Anytime it rains, you’re going to see bacteria levels go up. You’re going to see the clarity of the water go down, it’s going to look dirty. It is dirty when it looks dirty,” Gill said.

The DOH also says the public can also be part of the solution. The cleaner we live, the cleaner the Ala Wai and all of Hawaii beaches will be.

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