Pacific Islands Water Science Center

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

U.S. Geological Survey
Scientific Investigations Report 2006-5283
version 1.0

Ground-Water Nutrient Flux to Coastal Waters and Numerical Simulation of Wastewater Injection at Kihei, Maui, Hawaii

By Charles D. Hunt, Jr.


Drawing of a section of the surface and subsurface
Cutaway block diagram of simulated wastewater injection plume at Kihei, Hawaii. View is to the northwest. The small cubes are injection nodes in the model. Injected effluent rises buoyantly, spreads out near the top of the aquifer, and flows to the coast; it also mixes with surrounding ground water, resulting in the gradation in effluent concentration shown by the colored bands.


Water sampling and numerical modeling were used to estimate ground-water nutrient fluxes in the Kihei area of Maui, where growth of macroalgae (seaweed) on coral reefs raises ecologic concerns and accumulation on beaches has caused odor and removal problems. Fluxes and model results are highly approximate, first-order estimates because very few wells were sampled and there are few field data to constrain model calibration. Ground-water recharge was estimated to be 22.6 Mgal/d (million gallons per day) within a 73-square-mile area having a coastline length of 8 miles or 13 km (kilometers). Nearly all of the recharge discharges at the coast because ground-water withdrawals are small. Another 3.0 Mgal/d of tertiary-treated wastewater effluent is injected into the regional aquifer at a County treatment plant midway along the coast and about a mile from shore. The injection plume is 0.93 miles wide (1.5 km) at the shore, as estimated from a three-dimensional numerical ground-water model. Wastewater injected beneath the brackish ground-water lens rises buoyantly and spreads out at the top of the lens, diverting and mixing with ambient ground water. Ground water discharging from the core of the injection plume is less than 5 years old and is about 60 percent effluent at the shore, according to the model. Dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in treated effluent were 7.33 and 1.72 milligrams per liter, roughly 6 and 26 times background concentrations at an upgradient well. Background nitrogen and phosphorus fluxes carried by ground water are 7.7 and 0.44 kg/d-km (kilograms per day per kilometer of coast). Injected wastewater fluxes distributed across the plume width are 55 and 13 kg/d-km nitrogen and phosphorus, roughly 7 and 30 times background flux. However, not all of the injected load reaches coastal waters because nutrients are naturally attenuated in the oxygen-depleted effluent plume. Water from a downgradient well reflects this attenuation and provides a more conservative estimate of injection flux approaching the shore: 27 and 1.5 kg/d-km nitrogen and phosphorus, roughly one-half and one-ninth the injection-source estimates, and 3.5 and 3.4 times background flux. Effluent has δ18O and δ2H stable-isotope signatures that are distinct from local ground water, as well as δ15N and δ11B signatures diagnostic of domestic waste and laundry detergents, respectively. Pharmaceuticals and organic wastewater compounds also were present in effluent and the downgradient well. These isotopes and chemicals served as wastewater tracers in Kihei ground water and may be useful tracers in nearshore marine waters and aquifers elsewhere in Hawaii.


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