Still wary of the water
By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Suzanne Roig
KAILUA — Bob Perry and his family looked without success for a clean beach to swim at for most of the six days they were in Hawai'i.
Yesterday was no different. They thought Kailua Beach would be safe. No signs were posted warning of contaminated water from sewage spills, but they didn't count on Ka'elepulu Stream.
The stream, which flows into the ocean, still had posted warning signs until later yesterday, when they were removed by the state Department of Health.
"It's our last day here and we haven't been in the ocean yet," said Perry, of Riverside, Calif. "It sure looked like a nice beach out here, until I saw the signs on the stream."
Even though the signs have been removed where the family was staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Perry was concerned that there might be a risk.
With some beaches still closed and others just recently opened, how is someone to know if the water is safe?
After six weeks of rain, beaches around the island were closed when bacteria levels soared from storm-water runoff and sewage spills. In Waikiki, more than 48 million gallons of raw sewage poured into the Ala Wai Canal beginning March 24 after a sewer main break on Kai'olu Street. In Kailua, about 10 million gallons of raw sewage poured into the ocean in March.
One man died from organ failure when his body went into septic shock after he was infected with bacteria, possibly from a fall into the contaminated Ala Wai Boat Harbor.
While warning signs have been removed from some beaches, they remain closed in Waikiki and Kane'ohe.
Even when the signs are removed, the Department of Health won't guarantee that the water is free of bacteria, said Janice Okubo, DOH spokeswoman. Even under normal circumstances, the water could still infect someone with a compromised immune system or an open wound, Okubo said.
"There's bacteria everywhere," Okubo said. "People can get sick from the ocean at any time. It doesn't have to have a sewage spill. There's always bacteria in the ocean."
With all the contamination, some beachgoers have been leery about taking a dip in the ocean.
But at Kailua Beach yesterday, most local residents — those regulars who either surf or paddle in the ocean — didn't have qualms about going in, despite warning signs posted along Ka'elepulu Stream. Visitors, especially those with children, however, stayed out of the water.
One family, from Orange County, Calif., left Kailua Beach to look for another where they would feel that their three children could swim safely.
Before leaving their Waikiki hotel room, Tammy Nguyen had searched the Internet for information indicating which beaches were safe. She even asked the front desk at her hotel.
"I don't want to take a chance," Nguyen said as she decided to leave. "We'll go to Ko Olina. We don't want to take a chance."
Alika Cavaco, a Kailua surfer, said he's not concerned about the water. Two weeks ago, he was, but not now.
"When the water went blue, I stopped worrying about it," Cavaco said. "Kailua cleans up really quickly with the sunshine and the trade winds."
Cavaco also noted that a much smaller amount of sewage spilled at Kailua compared to the amount that was diverted into the Ala Wai Canal.
"I won't go in town for a long, long while," he said. "It will take some time before I'm trusting of that water."
Duane Samson, a member of the Kai Oni Canoe Club, said Kailua Beach was perfectly safe for swimming. Even the stream was in better condition than normal because the sand plug at the beach end had been opened and ocean water was mixing with the stream, Samson said.
"The stream is cleaner now than when it's plugged up," Samson said. "I just took a bunch of kids into the ocean from the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Monica (Calif.). Now the water is clean, not like when (the storm runoff and sewage spills happened last month). Then we didn't go in."
The confusion about when it's safe to go in the water means it's time to devise a better public reporting method on water bacteria levels, said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Sierra Club Hawai'i Chapter.
"We'd like to see a standardized reporting method posted online of the water quality from both the city and the state," Mikulina said. "We have a surf report; we should also have a poop report. We're pushing for this and next month you'll see more discussion on how to improve the reporting methods."
"Is it safe to go in the water?" Mikulina said. "That's the million-dollar question. Personally, it will take me awhile before I go to the townside beaches. We know our sewer system is falling apart below ground. There's reason for concern."
Reach Suzanne Roig at email@example.com.