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The Hui O Ka Wai Ola, Community-Based Ocean Water Quality Monitoring Program Celebrates its 100th Sampling Session

Have you been wondering if the brown water along North Kihei has persisted much longer past the winter storms than usual? Thanks to the long-term coastal water quality monitoring data of Hui O Ka Wai Ola, we have the data that shows it has. Maui’s volunteer-based ocean water quality monitoring program Hui O Ka Wai Ola (HOKWO) has been evaluating water quality in Maui since 2016. The Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, The Nature Conservancy, and West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative are the three organizations that co-founded and co-manage this unique community program. The program celebrated a special milestone: its 100th sampling week in South Maui.

At a beachside ceremony on Monday, July 17 at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Kihei, the 100th sample was collected from Kalepolepo Beach Park by HOKWO program volunteers Scott Graves and Harry Hecht alongside Team Lead Maile Sharpe. The event was attended by Senator Angus McKelvey, Representative Terez Amato, Councilmember Tom Cook, Mayor Bissen’s Executive Assistant Sharon Banaag, all of whom assisted HOKWO Staff Liz Yannell and Ylenia St-Louis in testing the 100th water sample for turbidity, temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and pH. The HOKWO program was presented with a Certificate in Appreciation of HOKWO Commemorating the 100th Water Sampling from the Hawaii State Legislature by Rep. Amato and Sen. McKelvey. 

The Hui O Ka Wai Ola water quality monitoring team prepares to collect the 100th water sample from South Maui at Kalepolepo Beach Park, Kihei, July 17.
Left to Right: HOKWO Program Manager Liz Yannell, volunteer Scott Graves, volunteer Harry Hecht, HOKWO Team Lead Maile Sharpe, HOKWO Team Lead Ylenia St-Louis.
Photo credit: Levity Photography

The HOKWO program tests coastal water quality at 31 sites along South and West Maui and 2 sites on Lana‘i every three weeks. Each sampling session in West Maui covers 18 sites stretching from Honolua Bay to Pāpalaua. Each South Maui sampling session covers 13 sites from Mā‘alaea to the ‘Āhihi-Kīna‘u Natural Area Reserve. The program continues to add or pause sites as needed. Two West Maui sites have been revived, one at Olowalu to support a coral restoration project and the other at Ukumehame to address concerns about coastal erosion. In a program first, two new sites were added in June this year on Lāna‘i to provide data to address community water quality concerns on that island. The sampling process takes a week to complete. During the sampling week, about a dozen volunteers wake up to head out in small groups to collect samples and measure water quality on-site with monitoring equipment they bring to each site in their mobile labs, and samples are then shipped to O‘ahu for nutrient analysis at the UH School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology laboratory.  

The spark that created the program came in 2013-2014 when now County Councilmember Tamara Paltin and volunteer Dana Reed noticed an increase in brown water events at DT Fleming Beach in West Maui, which led to beach closures. Concerned about the water quality, Reed, who had learned how to test ocean water for turbidity through a University of Hawaiʻi Maui College course, started gathering and testing samples. She met Paltin, who shared her worries and had previously reported the issue to the Department of Health. Their initial data wasn’t accepted due to the lack of a Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP). Undeterred, Reed and Paltin continued documenting water quality, and with the help of Reed’s husband Bill Rathfon and others, they identified Mahana Estates as the source of the sediment runoff. Through persistent efforts, they brought attention to the problem, leading to a county-mandated shutdown of the project and the improvement of the County’s Best Management Practices (BMPs). This experience highlighted the importance of water quality data, and culminated in the group’s effort to create a citizen’s monitoring group to supplement the data being provided by the State Department of Health.

To establish a community-based water quality monitoring program, the partner groups collaborated and sought guidance from research scientist Carl Berg. They learned the requirements set by the EPA and the state Department of Health for collecting and analyzing water samples, leading to a meeting involving various organizations and community groups. As a result, Hui O Ka Wai Ola, meaning “Association Of The Living Waters,” was launched as a partnership between Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, The Nature Conservancy, and West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative. The program’s fiscal management and oversight of finances and payroll were entrusted to Maui Nui Marine Resource Council.

Grants obtained from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation facilitated the creation of the program to purchase water sampling equipment for West Maui and later enabled the program’s expansion to South Maui. It took time to develop the required QAPP and train volunteers to correctly gather and analyze the samples. The first official samples of the new Hui O Ka Wai Ola program were collected in June of 2016.

Today Hui O Ka Wai Ola is led by a steering committee of representatives of the three partner organizations and run by five part-time staff, Liz Yannell, HOKWO Program Manager, Ylenia St-Louis and Maile Sharpe, South Maui Team Leads, Emily Johnson and Jess Erwin, West Maui Team Leads, along with over 30 dedicated volunteers. Community support has come from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Lahainaluna High School, Da Hawaiian Store, and Pineapple Properties LLC who have all provided lab space to the group for its indoor laboratories. The County of Maui has provided funding every year since 2016, along with several other local companies, foundations, and groups. At the event today, HOKWO volunteers received gift certificates from Duke’s Beach House Maui as a mahalo for their efforts.

Hui O Ka Wai Ola’s 100th Coastal Water Quality Sampling in South Maui, July 17 2023, Kihei. Photos credit: Levity Photography

The results of the program are shared by Hui O Ka Wai Ola with the community through the website, partner data portals, and regular presentations about water quality conditions along Maui’s leeward coast. A recent presentation can be viewed on the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council’s YouTube channel (https://bit.ly/hokwo2022). ​Since 2016, Hui O Ka Wai Ola has collected and analyzed over 3,200 water quality samples from 48 sites and has found that Maui’s coastal waters are often degraded by land-based pollutants, including sediments, fertilizers, and wastewater. In 2022, HOKWO released a findings report “Coastal Water Water Quality Report 2016-2021”. The report also highlights bright spots, such as Kapalua where nitrate levels have dropped significantly in the last two years, Camp Olowalu where turbidity levels declined, and Keālia Pond where pollutant levels are low, likely due to the wetlands’ ability to filter and absorb pollutants before they reach the ocean. Additional information about the program as well as the data they collect can be found at https://www.huiokawaiola.com/


The program continues to expand its efforts to include new equipment and testing methods to further identify sources of water quality impairment along Maui’s coasts. Its most recent initiative “Brown Water Watch” encourages anyone in Maui County to share pictures of brown water events (https://bit.ly/huibww). Follow along on Instagram @brownwaterwatch.

Representative Amato and Senator McKelvey present HOKWO Program Manager Liz Yannell with a Certificate in Appreciation from the Hawaii State Legislature at the HOKWO 100th Sampling Ceremony in Kihei, July 17. Photo credit: Levity Photography

Language from the HI State Legislature – Certificate in Appreciation of Hui O Ka Wai Ola Commemorating the 100th Water Sampling.

  • Whereas, Hui O Ka Wai Ola (Association of the Living Waters) is a collaboration of water quality champions dedicated to measuring and sharing the status of Maui Nui’s ocean water; and
  • Whereas, this outstanding group of community member volunteers, scientists, supporters, and partner groups has worked tirelessly to preserve and protect our environment; and
  • Whereas, since 2016, Hui O Ka Wai Ola has collected and analyzed over 3,200 water quality samples from 48 sites; and
  • Whereas, Hui O Ka Wai Ola Volunteers and leaders have employed rigorous scientific methods to protect our community, our oceans and our reefs; and
  • Whereas, These champions of the environment and protectors of health and reefs have today completed their 100th water sampling; now, therefore,
  • The Thirty-Second Legislature of the State of Hawai’i, this 17th of July 2023, that this body hereby congratulates Hui O Ka Wai Ola and all of its members and supporters for their hard work, dedication, and selfless efforts to protect our waters. We extend our respect, appreciation and warmest aloha.

Signed: The 32nd Legislature, 2023

Representative Terez Amato

Senator Angus L.K. McKelvey

Scott K. Saiki, Speaker of the House

Ronald D. Kouchi, President of the Senate

Brian L. Takeshita, House Chief Clerk

Carol Taniguchi, Senate Chief Clerk

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