A state health official maintains the water in Keehi Lagoon should be safe for the state’s largest paddling championship next week despite elevated bacteria levels in the wake of Tropical Storm Darby.
But the regatta could be scuttled by a new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Because of the new rule, the state’s Clean Water Branch chief might be unable to give the thumbs-up.
Watson Okubo, monitoring and analysis supervisor at the Clean Water Branch of the Department of Health, said the EPA’s regional office notified him Thursday that the branch must rely on testing for a single type of bacteria, enterococci, to determine water quality.
But the state has traditionally relied also on a secondary tracer, Clostridium perfringens, as a measure of water quality.
Okubo said samples taken this week for those two types of bacteria were above acceptable levels.
The Health Department issued a brown-water advisory for the lagoon Friday.
Ironically, Okubo said, paddlers from various clubs and community members involved in a huge cleanup Thursday may have contributed to the high levels by stirring up debris.
The paddlers are hoping to compete in the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association State Championship regatta Aug. 6 at Keehi Lagoon. On Wednesday the Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association canceled its champion-
ship regatta, which had been moved to Sunday after Darby hit, bringing in trash and debris, including a couch and a refrigerator and two shacks from a homeless encampment.
Because enterococci is found in sediment and decaying organic matter, it was likely under old carpets removed from the beaches and stirred up by people raking up debris and simply walking on the shoreline.
“If the Clostridium numbers go down, it’s not posing a health risk,” Okubo said. “It’s not a human fecal issue. If you have a sewage spill, you would have high Clostridium, high enterococci. If you just see high enterococci, there’s no sewage spill.”
He said it could indicate runoff containing soil, sediment, organic matter and animal matter.
But he said the water should be safe by Aug. 6 as long as paddlers don’t swallow it and have no open cuts.
“You’re not going to drink Keehi Lagoon water,” he said. “This is recreational water. I believe by next Wednesday, the counts should go down as long as we get a lot of sun.”
Clostridium doesn’t do well in oxygen and creates a spore until it gets a better habitat.
A good habitat for Clostridium would be a wound. If someone were to walk in a stream with a cut, Okubo said, spores could get into the wound and cause an infection in the bloodstream.
At the launch area where most of the cleanup activity occurred, samples found 24,000 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters for enterococci, and Clostridium was 82, above the alert level of 50.
In an area in front of the storage area, enterococci was far lower, at 4,884, and Clostridium was 13.
Under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act of 2000, the suitable maximum for enterococci in marine waters is 130 cfu per 100 milliliters for a single sample.
Okubo said from his experience, the odds of the 24,000 level dropping to acceptable standards in a week are almost nil.
But, he said, if a person is “healthy with a good immune system and no breaks in the skin, it shouldn’t be a problem” to participate in the event.
At this point the only way for him to be able to say, “OK, you’re allowed to race” would be to use Clostridium as a secondary indicator.
The state is continuing to have discussions with the EPA’s regional office about the rule.
“The science was not addressed properly,” Okubo said.
The state relies on $300,000 in federal funding annually from the EPA, so it must follow what the agency dictates.
The volunteers have been cleaning the area since Tuesday and plan on finishing up Sunday.
“We’re not going to disturb the water after Sunday,” said Luana Froiseth, president of the Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association, which is subhosting the state championship.
She remains optimistic and said, “When they
actually take the sample, they’re going to get a good reading, so the counts are going to be down.”
Walter Vierra, president of the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association, said the board of directors will meet today to discuss all of their options.
“If the Department of Health issues a brown-water advisory, I believe we’re prohibited from using the site,” Vierra said. “We would need to confirm that. Certainly, we wouldn’t want to put our paddlers in danger.”
He said the association requires different permits from different governmental agencies, and at least one of those permits would cover a situation in which the DOH deems conditions unsafe.
Vierra said by today he expects the board will likely make a decision “given the size of the event.”
“If the Department of Health advises us to stay out of the water, then I don’t expect we would be going forward, but that’s not my decision,” he said.