"Know before you go" is the surfer's mantra. Lifeguards in Hawaii, my home base, advise watching from shore for half an hour—the time it takes to see at least one set of full-size waves—before you decide to get wet. Next: "When in doubt, don't go out." But sometimes there are threats in the water you can't see, such as bacteria.
Having suffered ear and respiratory infections from polluted waters, as well as suppurating "volcano" sores from staph in coral cuts, I am motivated to pick waves that are clean in every sense. But how to know? A good place to start is by checking your favorite breaks in NRDC's annual state-by-state "Testing the Waters" report, and, good news for waveriders, the 2009 edition broke today.
It's summer in the northern hemisphere, and Hawaii's south shores are pumping. I'm a Honolulu local, so here's what I learned, thanks to NRDC's redaction of state water testing data, about my favorite surf spots in Town.
No surprise, but still a drag: Point Panic, adjacent to Kewalo Basin, which is known to locals as Garbage Hole's or Flies, exceeds national water quality safety thresholds by 5%. Near the harbor mouth, sewage discharge and landfill, Panic's is also one of only two dedicated bodysurfing breaks on the South Shore.
When my Diamond Head neighborhood break closes out on gnarly swells, I seek the sweet faces of Waikiki, the cradle of surfing, where kings and queens once shared breaks with commoners-and still do. (We're talking surfing royalty here, and these days, thrashing keiki and longboard kupuna rule.) But the wavers of Queen's Surf Beach Park, home of my favorite flying right, exceed standards by 6%. Nearby Kuhio Beach Park, packed with children on bodyboards, tips 7% over.
My neighborhood breaks at Diamond Head and Tongg's beach rate a zero percent overage. Great news, right? Uh, not so fast.
According to NRDC, which has sued the EPA to enforce the federal Beach Act requirements for monitoring water quality and public notification of pollution, the standards and the testing protocols fall short. As a result, "Swimmers continue to be at an unnecessarily elevated risk due to the limited scope of recreational water standards," the report says. As for surfers, we spend a lot more time in the water-the average session is about two hours-so that ratchets up our risk.
Inadequate Protection: When it Rains, it Pours
My main take-away messages from "Testing the Waters" are:
1. State authorities are merely skimming the surface with their tests and warnings. For example, Hawaii has 444 beaches, but fewer than half of these are monitored for contamination. And, only 37 beaches were monitored each year between 2005 and 2008! My local break at Diamond head is only monitored once a month; some beaches are monitored once a week, others, only once a year. And, water is sampled in the morning. But ask any surfer: Everyone knows the water's dirtiest at high tide, and tide times vary every day. And, even if excessive contaminants are found, the state of Hawaii has no authority to close beaches (remember, we're in bondage to the great god Tourism here), but only to post advisories.
Sometimes huge rainstorms cause sewage overflows and releases, especially in antiquated systems like Honolulu's, where 48 million gallons of raw sewage poured into the ocean from a ruptured sewer line for 6 days in March 2006. The outflow paralyzed activity at top surf breaks at Alamo's, Kaiser's and Waikiki just at the start of the spring wave season. Signs were posted, but no beaches closed, not even after a man fell into the water and died of flesh-eating strep.
2. Even if states gave better warning, surfers and swimmers won't be adequately protected until we curtail land-based ocean pollution sources. The latter include storm and wastewater runoff, human sewage, and agricultural runoff, including animal wastes and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers that cause algae blooms and dead zones.
What to Do
Check out NRDC's simple tips for conserving water and preventing runoff from your yard and driveway (clue: Use soil-building compost, not synthetic fertilizer; Don't hose down or water your car on pavement; think permeable, absorptive surfaces like gravel, groundcover plants.)
Help keep toxic, endocrine-disrupting synthetic sunblock chemicals out of the ocean, where they've been found to harm coral reefs and are linked to sex changes in fish! Use these natural sunblocks, which are better for your health, too.
Check out more green living tips at GreenerPenny.com.