Beach Monitoring Program
The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, promulgated in 2000 is an amendment to the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) which establishes national standard criteria for coastal recreational water monitoring and public notification of possible pollution within coastal recreational waters (beaches). The BEACH Act authorizes the EPA to provide funding to eligible states to implement a water monitoring and public notification program.
As an eligible coastal state, Hawaii receives an annual EPA BEACH Act grant which is used to implement the BEACH program. As a condition of receiving this grant, the Hawaii Department of Health (HDOH), Clean Water Branch (CWB) is required to fulfill the criteria specified in the National Beach Guidance and Required Performance Criteria for Grants. Part of the required criteria is to establish a beach monitoring program and to provide public notification whenever indicator bacteria levels exceed a specified threshold level.
The goal of Hawaii’s Beach Monitoring Program is to reduce the risk of illness to users of Hawaii’s beaches due to sewage pollution by issuing public advisories when warranted (e.g., due to evidence of sewage leaks or spills, heavy rains, etc.) and in response to exceedances of the BAV when there is no reason to doubt the accuracy or representativeness of the monitoring results. To achieve this goal, the CWB takes prompt action in response to any exceedance to the BAV by collecting confirmatory follow-up samples.
The CWB provides timely public advisories and risk communication to users of Hawaii’s beaches in response to BAV exceedances that may pose a health risk. Risk communication is provided to the public so that personal decisions may be made based on individual risk tolerances. The CWB believes that routine monitoring and prompt, accurate advisories will satisfy the goal of reducing risk to beach users by keeping beach users informed.
The CWB monitors beaches within the State for indicator bacteria. Indicators are defined by the Clean Water Act as “a substance that indicates the potential for human infectious diseases.” Testing for all possible disease-causing organisms (pathogens) is time consuming (if even possible) and very costly. Because the state cannot test for all possible pathogens in ocean water, the state uses indicator bacteria to determine whether there is a potential presence of fecal matter from warm-blooded animals, including humans, and therefore indirectly indicates the potential presence of pathogens.
Enterococci is an EPA-recommended fecal indicator that are found in high concentrations in the intestinal tract of humans and other warm-blooded animals. Testing for enterococci is relatively easy and cost effective. Indicators are generally not considered pathogens, but they mimic (although not perfectly) the fate and transport of most common gastrointestinal pathogens as it goes through the sewage treatment process. This means that if indicators are not found after the treatment process, then it is safe to assume that pathogens will also not be found. Most pathogens, unlike indicators, do not survive well in the environment.
Enterococci are indicators of the presence of fecal material in water and, therefore, of the possible presence of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. These pathogens can sicken swimmers and waders and those who eat raw shellfish or fish. Other potential health effects can include diseases of the skin, eyes, ears and respiratory tract. Eating fish or shellfish harvested from waters with fecal contamination can also result in human illness.
The CWB has adopted an EPA-recommended threshold value, called the Beach Action Value or BAV, of 130 enterococci per 100 mL of water sample. The illness rate associated with the BAV has been determined to be 36 illnesses/1,000 swimmers or waders. Enterococci levels greater than 130/100 mL indicates that there may be an increased probability of risk of illness due to pathogens that cause gastrointestinal (GI) illness in swimmers and waders of the affected beach. It does not necessarily mean that you will become ill, but there is an increased probability. There is a large margin of safety built into the BAV; however, the risk of contracting GI illness while recreating at a beach is never zero, even if enterococci levels are below the BAV.
Studies have shown that enterococci are not ideal indicators, especially in Hawaii. Some of the reasons include:
- Enterococci has been shown to be able to multiply in soil and decaying vegetation in Hawaii and other tropical regions, especially along inland streams that are heavily canopied by vegetation (UV radiation from the sun kills them), so their presence may not always indicate the presence of gastrointestinal pathogens in the water; however, elevated levels of enterococci has been associated to elevated risk of illness.
- Enterococci are found in the feces of warm-blooded animals including humans. They are also found in the feces of marine mammals, rats, chicken, cats, rabbits, mice, pigs, sheep, cows, dogs, pigeons, ducks, and geese. They have not been found in high numbers in sea turtle feces. EPA-conducted studies on the risks due to zoonotic illness (due to animal sources) have not been conclusive and the illness rates have not been firmly established.
- Enterococci may be detected long after a sewage contamination event has occurred if the organism becomes established as a normal inhabitant of the area. This means that enterococci may still be detected long after the sewage pathogens have been inactivated or killed. Most gastrointestinal pathogens do not survive very long in the environment.
- Enterococci is not specifically intended to detect pathogens that do not cause gastrointestinal illness, i.e., enterococci may not indicate the presence of organisms that can cause skin or wound infections.
- Enterococci is not meant to detect the presence of naturally occurring pathogens in Hawaii such as Vibrio species, non-sewage related pathogens such as Leptospira, or pathogens that do not primarily cause gastrointestinal illness such as Staphylococcus.
- Enterococci may be detected even in the absence of sewage contamination and may be found in soil and sand sediments, aquatic vegetation and land-based stormwater runoff including streets, parks, private residences, and parking lots.
- EPA has spent a considerable amount of time and effort in studying various indicators and has concluded that there is a fairly strong correlation between the number of enterococci present in a water sample and the rate of gastrointestinal illness among swimmers at beaches that were directly impacted by sewage discharge. Unfortunately, Hawaii was not included those studies and the impact of utilizing enterococci as a fecal indicator in tropical environments are not well characterized.
Hawaii’s beaches were evaluated and classified by the CWB when the BEACH Act was first enacted in 2000. In 2003, Hawaii submitted to the EPA an inventory of beaches that were subject to the provisions of the BEACH Act. The four largest islands of Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii Island are staffed by CWB personnel. The beaches on the islands of Lanai and Molokai are included in the beach inventory but are currently not monitored due to logistical challenges imposed by holding time restrictions for the samples. These islands are the least populated and industrialized of the major Hawaiian Islands and their beaches are least likely to be threatened by pollution. There are no BEACH Act beaches on the islands of Kaho’olawe and Ni’ihau due to access restrictions. With current resources, it is impossible and impractical for the CWB to monitor all beaches in the state; therefore, the CWB has ranked all beaches into different priority levels or tiers.
Hawaii’s BEACH Act inventory of beaches, submitted to the EPA in 2003, was ranked by tiers which identified the frequency of monitoring that the beaches would receive. During the evaluation process, CWB staff used a checklist to evaluate each beach using the factors listed below. The CWB also considered factors such as accessibility, available facilities such as showers and restrooms, local knowledge of the area, and consulted external sources such as lifeguards to determine daily beach user counts and reference books for current and historic information on usage. A major determining factor when considering beach usage is the presence of lifeguard stations on a beach.
The tier-based classification system for beaches is based on the following seven factors:
- Year-round primary contact recreation
- Presence of streams flowing through a residential, agricultural, urban, or industrial area and discharging nearby (urban nonpoint sources)
- History of sewage spills in the area with accompanying monitoring data
- Heavy beach usage
- Importance of the area to the local economy and use by the community
- Prior monitoring data showing elevated levels of FIB
- Ease of access to the beach, including whether access is restricted or must be gained through crossing private property
If a beach possesses five or more factors out of the seven listed above, the beach is given a Tier 1 ranking. If it possesses less than five factors, the beach may be given a Tier 2 ranking. If the beach is determined not to be threatened using the above criteria, if prior monitoring history revealed no evidence of excessive levels of FIB, or if regular monitoring is deemed unnecessary, the beach is classified as a Tier 3 beach.
The beach tier levels are evaluated annually by the CWB. The above classification criteria and, more importantly, the aggregated historical monitoring data are used to evaluate whether the tier level assigned to a beach should be changed. Heavily used beaches on each island are given priority consideration as there could be greater potential exposure when contamination levels are high. However, efforts are made to diversify the regularly monitored beaches, with the mentioned guidelines in mind as much as possible, as well as to monitor as many different regions of each island as resources allow.
Based on the tier of the beach, CWB conducts monitoring according to the table below.
Tier 1 beaches are considered “core” beaches and are ranked as such because of their economic and social importance to the state. Tier 1 beaches are heavily used and most are stationed by lifeguards. Tier 1 beaches may be threatened by some type of pollution. These beaches are given the highest monitoring priority.
Tier 2 beaches also include beaches which may be economically or socially important to the state but are less heavily used than Tier 1 beaches. Tier 2 beaches are currently monitored on a less frequent basis compared to Tier 1s due to resource constraints; however, the frequency may be increased as resources become available.
|Tier 3 beaches are even less heavily used, do not have a history of high FIB concentrations, are less threatened than Tier 1 or Tier 2 beaches, and currently receive no routine monitoring due to the lower threat and usage level. Tier 3 beaches also include those beaches that may pose a safety hazard to the sampler.
See the Beach Monitoring Program Document for a list of beaches and their tiers.
Click on the link below to access a copy of CWB’s current Beach Monitoring Program Document. This is a comprehensive document that describes the most recent information on CWB’s current Beach Monitoring activities and information.
While it is impossible to identify all possible risks associated with recreating in waters, due to the wide variety of potential factors at any moment including personal health conditions, and exposure time, there are some known common risks. These risks are largely dependent on what pollutants are in the water at the time of exposure.
The most common illness associated with swimming in beaches polluted by sewage is gastroenteritis from ingesting or drinking polluted water. Gastrointestinal illness (GI) is defined by the EPA 2012 Recommended Water Quality Criteria (RWQC) and includes any of the following symptoms within 10-12 days after swimming:
- Diarrhea (3 or more loose stools in a 24-hour period);
- Nausea and stomachache; or
- Nausea or stomachache which impacts daily activity.
Swallowing or ingesting water containing fecal pathogens may cause GI illness. Other minor illnesses associated with swimming may include ear, eye, and nose infections. These infections are contracted by direct contact with polluted waters. In highly polluted waters, swimmers may occasionally be exposed to more serious diseases.
Skin infections are mainly caused by pathogens that are not specifically detected by enterococci. This means that these pathogens may be present in the water even if the Beach Action Value (BAV) threshold has not been exceeded. Likewise, the presence of enterococci does not automatically mean that pathogens that cause skin infections are also present in the water.
The BAV threshold levels are almost always exceeded during and immediately after heavy rain or storms. There may also be elevated levels of other pollutants at beaches that are not detected by enterococci, especially near stream mouths and drainage ditches. Storm water runoff flowing into streams and drainage systems that eventually flow into the ocean may be carrying many types of pollutants. The risk of swimming or wading in brown water include exposure to:
- Sewage from overflowing and leaking sewage systems, including cesspools;
- Pesticides and fertilizers from lawns, parks, and agricultural areas;
- Chemicals, including solvents, oil, heavy metals, and other potentially toxic substances from streets, construction sites, and industrial areas;
- Garbage (including decomposing food scraps and other organic matter);
- Animal waste;
- Dead and decomposing animals;
- Flood debris; or
- Sharks are attracted to turbid waters near coastal areas and beaches.
The CWB issues Brown Water Advisories to advise people of the potential presence of these pollutants in waters after heavy rain events.
Not all illnesses from a day at the beach are from swimming. Food borne illness (aka “food poisoning”) from improperly handled or stored picnic lunches may also have some of the same symptoms as swimming-related illnesses, including stomachache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. See also: https://health.hawaii.gov/docd/disease-types/foodborne/
To protect the public from potential health risks due to contact with water with poor water quality or otherwise impacted by pollutants, the CWB issues water quality notifications and advisories.
A brown water advisory (BWA) is issued to advise beach users to use caution when waters are brown, turbid, or cloudy as these waters may contain land-based polluted runoff. BWAs are unique to Hawaii and are not part of the EPA Beach Program. It was named after the brown color of the water frequently observed after heavy rainfall which is mainly due to soil and silt runoff into the ocean via streams and drainage ditches. The CWB recognizes that land-based pollutants may pose a health risk to beach users when they are washed into the ocean; however, the current indicator does not detect many land-based pollutants such as toxic chemicals.
Note that the water need not be brown for the CWB to issue a BWA. The color of the water will often depend on the color of the surrounding soil, or may take on the color of land-based pollutants or may be gray or even colorless, but the water will often be cloudy or turbid. A BWA is generally issued by the CWB when the National Weather Service issues a Flash Flood Warning. A BWA may also be issued when CWB field personnel receives information or observes conditions consistent with a brown water event.
Heavy rain may cause excessive runoff of water carrying land-based pollution that eventually flows into the ocean via beaches. However, rain need not occur on the beaches; rain in the mountains may cause runoff to impact a beach through streams, storm drains or drainage canals even on a sunny day at the beach.
Other events such as water main breaks may also cause land-based pollutants to be washed into beaches and streams. Stormwater runoff may include water from overflowing cesspools, sewers, and manholes; pesticides; animal fecal matter; dead animals; pathogens; chemicals; and associated flood debris.
Not all coastal areas may be impacted by runoff, however, if the water is brown you are advised to stay out. The issuance of a BWA does not mean that the beach is closed. The CWB reminds you to continue to practice good personal hygiene and follow-up with your primary care physician if you have any health concerns. Very high surf may also warrant a BWA because large waves may wash up beyond the normal high-water mark and can draw in land-based pollutants from the surrounding area, including around picnic areas, or parking lots where the sand or ground does not normally get wet.
Any exceedance of the Beach Action Value (BAV) for the enterococci pathogen during routine monitoring of Hawaii’s Beach Program beaches triggers confirmatory follow-up sampling, a Notification on the CWB Water Quality Notification and Advisories website and a Notification email to all subscribers. The Notification serves to inform the public that the beach is being resampled. No Advisory signs are posted on the beach until confirmatory follow-up sampling test results indicate BAV exceedance. The Notification is canceled on the CWB Water Quality Notification and Advisories website if the follow-up resample results show that the BAV has not been exceeded and email Notifications are transmitted to all subscribers to inform them of the cancellation.
To avoid a prolonged Notification period, an Advisory, rather than a Notification, is issued if follow-up samples cannot be collected before a weekend or a holiday. Signs are also posted on the affected beach(es). Follow-up samples are collected on the next workday.
The CWB does not close beaches in response to any Advisory but does issue Advisories to inform the public about water quality conditions so that personal decisions may be made based on individual risk tolerances. Public awareness and enhancing the capacity for informed personal choice are important factors in ensuring public health protections are provided to recreational water users. Notifications differ from Advisories in that Notifications inform the public that the site is being resampled or that the site is no longer exceeding BAV levels. Signs are not posted on the beach in response to Notifications.
Generally, the CWB follows the notification/advisory process below:
- CWB is notified when the final laboratory results show that the sample exceeds the threshold.
- If the beach has historically met acceptable beach threshold levels, CWB issues a High Bacteria Count NOTIFICATION which is posted on the CWB website and emails are sent to all subscribers. No signs are posted on the beach.
- A sampler collects follow-up confirmatory samples the next day.
- If the follow-up samples do not exceed the threshold level, the Notification is canceled on the CWB website and emails are sent to all subscribers.
- If the follow-up samples do exceed the threshold OR if follow-up samples cannot be collected the next day (e.g. prior to a weekend or holiday), a Beach ADVISORY is posted on the CWB website and emails are sent to all subscribers. Signs are posted on the affected beach.
- Beach ADVISORIES remain posted until the threshold is no longer exceeded.
- When the threshold level is no longer exceeded, the advisory is canceled on the CWB website and emails are sent to all subscribers. Signs on the beach are removed. Advisory information is posted on the CWB website at: https://eha-cloud.doh.hawaii.gov/cwb/#!/landing.
If the CWB receives a report of a confirmed sewage spill into State waters, a Sewage Spill advisory is issued. A confirmed sewage spill is defined as a spill reported by a permitted wastewater facility or a spill that has been verified by a CWB staff member. Cesspool and septic system overages and seepage events (non-chronic events) may be added to an advisory if they can be demonstrated to contribute to the spill event. The procedures specified in HAR 11-6215, Wastewater Systems, Appendix B, Responses for Wastewater Spills, Overflows, and Discharges (“Spills”) will be followed. If the owner/agent is unable to post warning signs, the CWB posts signs in area(s) likely to be affected by the spill and where public access is possible.
A Sewage Spill advisory provides information (location, description, cause, etc.) and warns the public to stay out of the affected waters. The advisory is transmitted via email to all subscribers as described above. Sewage advisories affecting beaches remain active until water samples indicate that the enterococci BAV is no longer exceeded. When the advisory is no longer in effect, the signs are removed, the advisory on the CWB Water Quality Notification and Advisories website is removed, and emails are transmitted to all subscribers informing them that the advisory is no longer in effect.
When an advisory is issued for a beach or other waters, it is highly recommended that the public does not recreate or come into contact with the affected waters. Contact with polluted waters can increase the risk of contracting illness or other physical injury.
The CWB has an automated CWB Water Quality Notification and Advisories website that has an automated subscription service the public can use to receive automated email notifications whenever a water quality notification or advisory is issued or terminated.
Go to: https://eha-cloud.doh.hawaii.gov/cwb/#!/landing to subscribe for email notifications.
There are many ways to help reduce health risk when recreating in Hawaii’s waters. Safe hygiene practices as well as knowledge of personal health conditions can help reduce health risk.
Certain groups are at higher risk of waterborne illness. Individuals in these groups should take this into consideration when deciding to recreate in Hawaii’s waters, in conjunction with the observed water conditions at the time.
The following groups are generally at higher risk of waterborne illness:
- Studies show that children swallow up to four time the amount of water as adults when swimming or wading;
- Pregnant women; and
- People with weakened immune systems.
Follow the recommended safe practices below to help reduce health risks when recreating:
- Stay informed. Check the CWB Water Quality Advisories website for current beach advisories at: https://eha-cloud.doh.hawaii.gov/cwb/#!/viewer. The public is encouraged to sign up to receive email advisories at that site. Other information may be obtained by going to the CWB main website at: https://health.hawaii.gov/cwb/
- There is always a certain degree of risk associated with recreating at the beach. — Some people are at greater risk of becoming ill (young children, elderly, pregnant women, and people with chronic illness or weakened immune systems). This group of individuals should take extra precautions. — Some people may become ill after swimming at the beach even if enterococci is not detected. — Some people will not get ill even after they are exposed to levels of enterococci that exceed the acceptable threshold level.
- People at higher risk should stay out of the water whenever notifications are issued or whenever signs are posted.
- Avoid swimming at beaches during or immediately after heavy rain.
- Do not enter the water if it looks brown or turbid, even if a Brown Water Advisory has not been issued by the CWB.
- Avoid swimming and bathing in streams or on beaches near stream mouths, drainage pipes or canals, or storm drains. Streams are often the source of high enterococci in beach waters.
- Swimming with your head underwater (in any natural waterbody) increases your risk of infection through the eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Do not drink or swallow stream or ocean water.
- Do not step on coral at beaches; coral cuts may become infected by naturally occurring pathogenic bacteria that inhabit the coral. These organisms are not detected by the current indicator and their presence do not indicate any type of pollution.
- Do not enter the water if you have open cuts or wounds.
- Practice good personal hygiene; wash off thoroughly with fresh water after swimming or recreating at the beach. This includes thoroughly washing off under rash guards, wet suits, and other impermeable clothing that can trap seawater against the skin.
- Consider the risk factors and make an informed decision.
- If in doubt, stay out.
See below to access some educational materials created by CWB.
For more water quality related resources, see the following pages:
- Water Quality Advisories System
- Hawaii Administrative Rules, Chapter 11-54, Water Quality Standards
- Water Quality Data
- Exceedances During Rain Events (1999-2021)