By Guy Ragosta

Welcome to March madness 2006 in Hawaii, where 40 days and 40 nights of continuous rainfall spurred more flashfloods than Whirlwind Menehunes charging down landslides. The initial floodwaters hit worst on windward Oahu from Crouching Lion to Kamehameha warriors’ burial grounds, submerging roads and stranding locals. Waikiki beaches: closed. Kailua beach: closed. Ala Moana Bowls: closed. Then the Kaneohe Bay sewage plant burst, sweeping thousands of gallons of sewage into currents moving towards the North Shore.

Flood zone estimates show Lake Wilson’s high-risk dam could inundate Haleiwa and Waialua towns on the North Shore of Oahu if it breaks and water rushes down over the old plantation landscape. Those towns are slated for evacuation if the water level in the lake reaches 84 feet.

On March 9, 2006, early morning, I logged on to the US Geological Survey’s real-time gage to find Lake Wilson’s water level was at 83.4 feet. I immediately sent email warnings to the Sierra Club, Governor Lingle of Hawaii, and other officials about the potential pollution problems. Sierra Club responded, thanking me for alerting the public, followed by blaring sirens on local radio alerting North Shore residents to seek higher ground.

On March 14, 2006 a dam burst on Kauai and sent a torrent of rushing water down the mountain, killing seven people en route to the ocean. Old-school Hawaiians predicted an event like this, as the sustainable ahupua‘a days (the old land division system of Hawaii where islanders were stewards of property stretching from the mountains to the sea) faded into condos and large-scale farms. Dams and reservoirs, built throughout the islands to irrigate the cane in plantation eras, now serve as antiquated catchment systems for polluted runoff. Water behind many of these dams reached dangerously high levels during the March rains.

On March 24, 2006 City of Honolulu officials ordered the discharge of approximately 48 million gallons (that’s about five times the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez on March 24, 1989 in Alaska) of raw sewage into the Ala Wai canal after a 42-inch sewer main burst, threatening to flood Waikiki streets and buildings with waste. The Ala Wai (the major surface water outlet in Waikiki) drained toward Ala Moana’s famous “Bowls” surf spot, and carried water via currents and kona winds toward Diamond Head. Fecal bacteria (enterococci) levels reached over 100,000 Colony Forming Units (CFU)/100 ml, greatly exceeding the single-sample safety advisory limit of 100CFU/100ml in surrounding marine waters. Meanwhile, pathogens settling to the bottom of the canal and harbor could thrive or mutate and re-enter the water column whenever disturbed in the future.

On April 1, 2006 after over 40 days of rainfall, sunshine peeked from behind clouds as Steve Miller played “The Joker” inside a newly lush Diamond Head crater, now teeming with waterfalls. The rays drew hardcore tube-seekers out of their caves, where many hibernated during the deluge, cranking out push-ups, watching Big Wednesday, training on humpballs (updown, up-down), and sandbagging driveways – whatever it took to keep fit for the day the sea turned from sewage brown back to Hawaiian blue.

“I couldn’t wait, I had to surf,” said a friend, a doctoral student in genetically modified plants. “Diamond Head waves looked good, but the water looked shitty.” He got an infection in his leg and had to treat it with antibiotics. April fools!

Right about then, Honolulu mortgage broker and surfer Oliver Johnson hit up Waikiki and, while strolling home, stumbled into a brawl and fell into the Ala Wai boat harbor at the mouth of the canal. Soon thereafter, doctors amputated Oliver’s leg when an infection necrotized his swollen limbs, followed by fatal organ failure on April 6. Scientists, media, and politicians emblazoned the public relations debate, spinning and investigating whether or not the 48 million gallons of sewage pumped into the canal contributed to Oliver’s death, or if his alcoholic tendencies heavily influenced his condition.

When animal and human waste reach unsafe levels in recreational waters, bathers (especially the ill or those with open wounds) often see increased incidence of rashes, fever, gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses, leptospirosis, ear and nasal infections, dysentery, and so on. An evaluation of users of marine waters in the United Kingdom showed that risk of illness increased with the degree of exposure; with the non-exposed population given a risk value of 1, waders got a value of 1.25, swimmers 1.31, and surfers 1.81. The implications were clear in Hawaii, where wave riders dominate the near-shore marine waters, where the Ala Wai canal pulses around the apex of Hawaiian tourism, the economic golden goose of the Islands, the hotel-packed resort, Babylon of Waikiki.


The Ala Wai canal was built in the 1920s to drain wetland water from the swampy environs of Waikiki. Constructing a 30-storey, high-class high-rise hotel on this famous beach would be virtually impossible unless a man-made canal funneled the wetland water and sucked the taro farms dry, thereby displacing Native Hawaiians from their land. Now, a heavily-paved Waikiki and a unidirectional Ala Wai receive non-point source drainage from the most densely populated city in the USA and human and animal waste represent only part of the pollution potential in this urban watershed.

Chlordane was a compound used extensively to kill termites in Hawaii until about the 1970s, when public health concerns arose about its toxicity. An endocrine disruptor and potential carcinogen, chlordane has an ability to stay in soil for a very long time. A recent study showed that fi sh tissue of urban Oahu streams contained total chlordane values that greatly exceed the recommended limits established for birds and mammals that consume fish in New York, and urban Oahu streambed sediment total chlordane values exceed the levels above which deleterious effects are likely under Canadian Sediment Quality Guidelines.


While no recommended limits exist for chlordane or pathogen values in Hawaiian sediment, the potential public health concerns are evident. Fish swim in the stuff, and ill surfers can wipe out head first on the reef. Furthermore, when non-point source infiltration and surface runoff combine with degrading waste and streambed sediment during floods, an already bad situation can be exacerbated by the creation of long-term carcinogenic compounds.


Sixteen days after April Fools Day, rumors abound among the public, yet Waikiki beaches remain open for business. But … community groups form. Inspired by sewage roundtable meetings spearheaded by Peter Cole, a legendary surfer and Chair of the Oahu Surfrider Foundation, I began creating an educational film documentary on the recent sewage spill.

“We’re not really here today for the blame game of who should’ve, who could’ve,” Cole said. “We’re mainly here to try to come up with some positive solutions for the future, so that we never have a situation like this again. We want to make sure that surf sites and the ocean are not the dumping grounds for sewage in the future. And that’s the reason why Surfrider Foundation is so interested and involved in this.”

“The issue of most concern to people today is, are the waters safe to swim?” said Dr Bruce Anderson, who spent a dozen years as director of the Hawaii State Department of Health (HI DOH). “How can we do better about getting the word out? When there is a sewage spill, we have to post the warning signs first, and do the tests next,” said Larry Lau, Deputy Director of HI DOH. “The point is, we don’t wait for tests. The ones we use take 24 hours and are imperfect.”

“We’ve had good weather and I anticipate the counts to drop significantly within the Ala Wai canal and the boat harbor,” said Watson Okubo, Director of the HI DOH Clean Water Branch. “We noticed that there was a plume heading towards Diamond Head area, so we went and tested the surface water of surrounding surf zones and saw that most areas were declining in number [of toxins] except Ala Moana Bowls.”

One issue persists: The State of Hawaii DOH Clean Water Branch only tests for sewage-related contaminants of surface waters; no federal or state recommended safety limit exists for sewage pollution in streambed or surf-zone sediment. So, very little data exists on how fecal matter trickles into tropical island soils or sediment. “When there are no regulations to do it, it is a very difficult test to carry through,” said expert soil and water microbiologist Dr Roger Fujioka of the Hawaii Water Resources Research Center.

In a 2005 report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council, it was stated that: “The Clean Water Branch of the Hawaii Department of Health runs a statewide beach waterquality monitoring program. Hawaii’s bacteria standard is one of the strictest in the nation, but the department does not always close a beach or issue an advisory if the standard has been exceeded. The department asserts that fecal bacteria are indigenous to soils of Hawaii, and therefore do not always represent fecal contamination from people and animals.” The US Environmental Protection Agency does not recognize the department’s claim that enterococci represent an indigenous source of Hawaiian soils.

Most published research and assumptions made about fecal bacteria sources of tropical islands focuses on soil data collected from the heavily urbanized overpopulated islands of O‘ahu, Guam, and Puerto Rico, where non-point source microbial contamination greatly surpasses more rural undisturbed tropical islands. Water samples collected from an upper elevation uninhabited forested stream of north side Kauai from 2004-2005 showed average enterococci values at about 10CFU/100ml, safe according to the federal recommendations.

“We don’t have a combined stormwater/sewage system here in Hawaii,” admitted Dr Bruce Anderson. “Sewage systems leak in some areas. So whenever it rains, we have a lot of intrusion into these systems. Water goes into the manholes, essentially overwhelms the systems, and sewage flow increases dramatically.”

“In some places the pipes are actually cracked, and some of the pipes are in seawater-groundwater areas and stuff leaks in,” Lau explained.

“We need money for a lot of this, and the money should be there, and if the money isn’t there, we should do something about getting the money there,” said Cole. “The Ala Wai could be an integral part of a sewage-treatment system using native Hawaiian plants to filter out pollutants.”

The Sierra Club has been entangled in legal issues with the city for a number of years, trying to convince the municipality to move towards a sustainable sewage management system. The city had been warned about the 42 inch main that finally ruptured catastrophically in March. The same Waikiki line had smaller ruptures in 1993 and 2004. “The Sierra Club, Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, and Our Children’s Earth asked to intervene in the proceedings,” said Jeff Mikulina of the Sierra Club. “The city, believe it or not, hired a mainland law firm which asked for $2.5 million to fi ght our intervention in coming up with solutions to our sewage problems.”


“The one thing I am a little turned off with is the lawsuits,” said Cole, “because what happens in a lawsuit is you end up having to spend a lot of money against that lawsuit that you could put into fixing the sewage system.”

Rick Egged of the Waikiki Improvement Association agrees: “Given the state of our system, which was described as ‘archaic’, it seems to me that this is turning into a community emergency situation, and it shouldn’t be business as usual in terms of upgrading our system. All the regulatory processes that might stretch this out into an extended period of time should be brought together in a shortened period.”

Will toxic sediments pulse out into surrounding beaches and cause health problems during future fl oods? I’m not sure. Preliminary tests I ran of samples taken from the bottom at the Ala Wai sewage-discharge site in early May showed alarmingly high fecal bacteria (enterococci) levels. Further preliminary tests ran by a certified lab in July showed sediment samples collected at 30ft deep at Ala Moana Bowls to contain enterococci. A suite of tests for additional bacteria could provide more valid results, but cost limits tests such as DNA tracking.

One fact is clear: Development has significantly altered Waikiki. No longer vibrant with taro fields, native plants, and birds, the area has lost the natural filtration system of undisturbed swamps. “The wetlands can be a natural fi lter, and we are doing away with wetlands with developments all around the islands,” said Peter Cole.


Converting limited open land areas (like the Ala Wai golf course along the canal) into reconstructed wetlands using plants to fi lter out urban runoff pollution could improve water quality of downslope recreational waters. If we reserve parcels of land currently used for par-3s as bioremediation centers, we could replace heavily fertilized grass with native plants. Researchers are using hydroponics to grow akulikuli plants fl oating on rafts within the Ala Wai canal, because the akulikuli roots absorb contaminated surface water.

But for now, urbanization continues its menacing sprawl, as native Hawaiians get pushed off their land, and separated from their roots. And if you even try to plant a seed on the Ala Wai golf course or along a Hawaiian stream without government permission, you could go to jail or be heavily fined, even though the same elected officials who hand out tree-planting permits can dump 48 million gallons of raw sewage into state waters. So, the day awaits that the herbal healing process cracks its roots through paved roads and buildings in Waikiki, and blossoms into native plants from mountain to sea.

“All I do is plant a seed,” sings Sashamon from Moloka‘i. “Makes me feel good, makes me feel irie. But I’m a herbal criminal. We are herbal criminals!” Sashamon is a musician, music director, and composer for Surfi ng Medicine International, a nonprofit group seeking to foster cooperation between traditional healers and surfers to create sustainable medicinal plant systems for coastal communities around the world suffering from the effects of pollution. “Send Jah roots down. Then we gonna grow. Send Jah roots down and reach to the sky … so the river can sparkle to the sea,” rhapsodizes Sashamon. “Send Jah roots down for all mankind. Jah roots is what we need, so let’s get down, let’s get dirty.”

“Roots is powerful. Roots is like a medicine,” says Bobo Richie, Rastafarian roots man from Jamaica, and co-founder of Surfing Medicine International. Bobo Richie lives off the land, and understands the importance of planting roots to keep our waters clean.

“If the heavy rains start again, and a lot of rainwater gets into our wastewater sewers, and the volume becomes too much, then we may run into problems again,” says Eric Takamura, Director of Environmental Services for the City and County of Honolulu.

Meanwhile, someone surfs, someone gets barreled, and someone eats the fish that eat off the urban streambed sediment. The State of Hawaii has not conducted a thorough study to correlate known environmental pollutants in recreational water and sediment to illness rates of associated user groups. Meanwhile, that adrenaline junkie at Pipe or Bowls might get sick, while politicians and scientists debate the effi cacy of coastal water quality data in Hawaii and tropical islands worldwide.

Meanwhile, surfers scan mountaintops and wonder if that cloud will burst, if that dam will break, if that sediment is tainted. But … surf on! Rip that tube like it’s your last! Stick that barrel like it doesn’t matter … as planes depart and arrive 24/7 at Honolulu International … as surfers surf, fossil fuels burn, fishermen fish, ice caps melt, hotels rise, ozone holes expand, and a March 2006 satellite image of the Pacific Ocean looked like one big cloud evaporating off the North and South poles sending twisting vortices of rain to the birthplace of surfing … as global warning loomed and Waikiki beach was closed, as March came in like Jah lion, and pulsed out like April fools.

Guy Ragosta, MS in Natural Resources and Environmental Management, researches stream ecology and makes fi lm documentaries about connections between water quality, plants, and surfi ng in Hawaii, Jamaica, and Africa. See more at: www.surfingmedicine.org