Hawaii & Alaska
Seaweed-covered coral reefs off coastal Maui. Credit: Hawaii News Now.

USA - NCCOS Research Provides Scientific Foundation for U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

A recent U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruling found that pollution discharge into groundwater from a Maui County (HI) sewage treatment plant (County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund) fueled macroalgal (seaweed) blooms along the west side of the Island of Maui. This case is based on research funded by the NCCOS Competitive Research Program (CRP) beginning almost 30 years ago.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the Clean Water Act’s permitting program applies to pollution that funnels through groundwater before reaching a federally regulated waterway. On the island of Maui, wastewater injected into disposal wells travels underground and ends up in the Pacific Ocean.

Following a series of studies funded by the NOAA Coastal Ocean Program (now NCCOS CRP) in the 1990’s, NCCOS CRP initiated a research study on Maui’s macroalgal blooms in 2002 led by the University of Hawaii at Manoa. This project, “Nuisance Macroalgal Blooms in Coastal Maui: Assessment and Integration of Physical Factors and Biological Processes,” was funded through the Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) program and included partners from the Waikiki Aquarium, Hawaii Department of Health, Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The project linked the substantial nuisance macroalgal blooms in Maui coastal waters with wastewater nutrient sources. These results were followed by a tracer study that connected wastewater injection into groundwater at Lahaina wastewater treatment plant, which was identified in the lawsuit, with impacted coastal waters. The ECOHAB project culminated in a December 2008 workshop sponsored by CRP. Concurrent with the ECOHAB study, the CRP-supported Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative (HCRI) funded the University of Hawaii Manoa for additional related studies.

The ECOHAB and HCRI projects focused research efforts on the link between increased nutrients from land-based sources of pollution and the decline in coral health. Results showed that all coastal waters near injection wells had high nitrogen values and were impacted by sewage effluent high in nutrients (but no pathogens) leaking from deep injection wells.

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