Rob Parsons

Ma‘alaea Injection Wells Damaging Coral Reef

But the County wants to conduct more studies

by Rob Parsons

June 6 , 2010

In 2008, faced with studies linking nutrients from wastewater injection wells and septic systems from Maalaea condominiums to a drastic decline in coral reef health, then-Councilmember Michelle Anderson worked with U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono to acquire federal funding to, "Define an immediate solution for alternative disposal of wastewater and domestic sewage."

But after being awarded an appropriation of more than $184,000, the County Department of Environmental Management took a big step backward, hiring a consultant to do more water quality testing rather than devising a plan to address retiring the wells and sewage treatments, approved and constructed in the 1970s.

Questions arose at County Council on May 7, when a routine agenda from the Director of Finance transmitting 33 contracts elicited discussion and closer scrutiny. Now the matter is to be reviewed in the Council's Infrastructure Management Committee on Monday, June 7.

The original funding request, titled "Maalaea Coral Reef and Preservation," acknowledged that "scientifically quantified studies already conducted over 8 years" link land-based nutrients to coral reef degradation. The University of Hawaii Botany Department and USGS have both conducted research confirming the effects of wastewater plumes percolating into the ocean, resulting in dense growths of macroalgae.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) has conducted monitoring since 1999, in partnership with the Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program. In a presentation to the County Council in July 2007, DAR Education Specialist Russell Sparks described a "total system collapse at Maalaea."

In 1972 Maalaea coral reefs were described as "striking in their diversity and in the presence of rare coral species." As late as 1993, coral reef cover was estimated at 50-75 percent in the area. Cover is now reduced to 8 percent. "[I]n just a few decades, the Maalaea reef has transformed from a healthy and diverse ecosystem into a badly degraded habitat overgrown by algae and with little surviving coral," concluded the DAR presentation.

Eleven condominiums at Maalaea produce approximately 250,000 gallons of wastewater and sewage per day, which is injected into more than 20 wells, the deepest of which is only about 75 feet. State Department of Health, Safe Drinking Water Branch data show that six wells are less than 50 feet below the surface, and a dozen others are no deeper than 60 feet. The Maalaea Triangle Development, constructed in the mid- to late 1990s, adds another 50,000 gallons of nutrient-rich water daily, though their injection well is 290 feet.

In formulating their Request For Proposal (RFP) for the Maalaea Coral Reef Degradation Study, it appears the County flip-flopped the original goals of the project—to determine solutions and alternative means of wastewater and sewage disposal—into a scope of work that elevated "conduct additional study" and "monitor and compare pollution and nutrient concentrations" above seeking immediate solutions.

Even so, it's surprising that the RFP contract winner, Marine Research Consultants, Inc., wrote a proposal that in no way refers to Scope of Work point four, "evaluate and define alternative disposal solutions for wastewater, domestic sewage, cesspool, septic tank, and injection well systems."

Oceanographer and Maalaea resident Dr. Thomas Royer offered a critical evaluation of the proposal awarded the contract for additional studies. While a good background for future studies, Royer concluded, "it should not be expected to serve as a basis for a remediation plan."

"[Lead researcher Dr. Steve] Dollar et al will not address the effects of injection wells explicitly," Royer wrote. "No mention is made of their potential contribution but their influence will show up on the nutrient flux analysis if the results are significant. They seem to conclude that sewage is not a problem since they dismiss the nitrogen isotope work that focuses on wastewater management problems."

While the County Council does not have the authority to cancel the contract, they could make recommendations to do so or to investigate the procurement selection process. The contract does contain a provision for cancellation, or "Termination for Convenience."

"The Procurement Officer may, when the interests of the County so require, terminate this Contract in whole or in part, for the convenience of the County," it states.

In order to comply with the original goals of the project, going back to the drawing board and utilizing the federal appropriation in a more proactive way is exactly what's needed. 

The Infrastructure Management Committee will meet Monday, June 7 at 9am in the Council Chambers, 200 S. High St., Wailuku. For info call 270-7838 or visit www.co.maui.hi.us