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Sediment budget for watersheds of West Maui, Hawaii

May 21, 2021

Episodic runoff brings suspended sediment to West Maui’s nearshore waters, turning them from blue to brown. This pollution degrades the ecological, cultural, and recreational value of these iconic nearshore waters. We used mapping, monitoring, and modeling to identify and quantify the watershed sources for fine sediment that pollutes the nearshore each year. These results focus strategies to reduce pollution on the outstanding sources for this sediment.

Terrestrial runoff causing coastal plumes now occurs when two or more hours of rain falls at rates greater than 10–20 millimeter (mm) per hour in source watersheds. Analysis of recent and historical rainfall indicates that West Maui communities can expect rainfalls to bring coastal plumes at least 3–5 times per year. Former agricultural fields and some unimproved roads are possible sources for the fine sediment of these plumes. We found, however, that these obvious sources do not produce plumes during small annual storms, because they drain water at rates that far exceed most annual rainfalls and because there is no evidence for runoff from rains that caused recent plumes. Streambanks now eroding into historic fill terraces of sands, silts, and clays are a more plausible source. These terraces are found only downstream of historical agricultural fields and are composed of silt and fine sand. Surveys show that the fill terraces occupy ~40 percent of streambank length, making them extensive. During 2015–2016, these deposits eroded at median rates of 5–24 mm per year. Summed over West Maui’s watersheds, these rates imply sediment loads carried to the coast that can be ten times or more than modeled pre-human values. A sediment budget indicates that bank erosion of fill terraces from a few watersheds likely dominates the current annual fine-sediment load to the nearshore, with Kahana Stream watershed producing the largest annual input of 285 metric tons, the equivalent of 29 dump-truck loads every year.

Although past large storms have contributed to sediment loading, annual plume generation is now caused by smaller rainfalls eroding these near-stream terrace deposits, a legacy of historic agriculture. Treatments of former agricultural fields, roads, and reserve forests are consequently not likely to measurably effect sediment pollution from smaller, more frequent storms. Increased runoff from residential and commercial development of West Maui has the potential to exacerbate sediment plumes from such storms.

Publication Year 2021
Title Sediment budget for watersheds of West Maui, Hawaii
DOI 10.3133/sir20205133
Authors Jonathan D. Stock, Corina Cerovski-Darriau
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2020-5133
Index ID sir20205133
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center