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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories

Northern Marianas Islands


Turning Problems into Advantages -
The Marianas Islands Responds to Nonpoint Sources in the Lau Lau Bay Watershed

The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) is a commonwealth of the United States, consisting of 16 small islands in the western Pacific. The islands are tropical and have a growing population for which tourism and the garment industry are major businesses. Saipan, the largest of the 16 islands, is the business, government, and population center. Nonpoint source pollution is a serious problem in the CNMI. The rainfall pattern (intense storms and only two seasons [wet and dry]), geology, and downstream resources (coral reefs) make nonpoint source both difficult and important to prevent and control.

Focusing on a watershed approach

The Lau Lau Bay watershed is located on the southeastern side of the island of Saipan. The watershed is characterized by steep slopes, volcanic soils, and intermittent streams. Runoff from the watershed drains into a fringing coral reef, the site where most of the tourists and many residents scuba dive and where many local families fish and picnic on the weekends. The watershed is relatively undeveloped; an unpaved coral road traverses most of the area and only a few small farms and residences appear in the watershed. However, much of the watershed will soon be developed to accommodate a golf course and megaresort.

In 1991, two unpermitted land clearings occurred in the Lau Lau Bay watershed, one for a residential housing development and one for a limestone quarry. A tropical storm passed by the island soon after the clearings took place and caused massive erosion on the sites, resulting in heavy sedimentation of the reef. While these activities caused significant damage to nearshore resources, they also drew attention to the significance and fragility of the watershed. The CNMI government took note of these events and many agencies began to focus on protecting the watershed.

Agency partnerships and monitoring project

The Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ) made the Lau Lau Bay watershed the initial focus of its efforts to document and monitor the effects of nonpoint source pollution on the coral reef. The CNMI Interagency Watershed Working group has also "adopted" the watershed as their target to conduct resource studies and demonstration projects. In March 1996, DEQ began monitoring the effects of nonpoint source pollution, mostly sedimentation, on the coral reef in Lau Lau Bay.

The project's primary goals were to help CNMI agencies develop the capacity for conducting similar projects in other watersheds and to develop a systematic method to monitor nonpoint source pollution throughout the CNMI. DEQ formed a marine monitoring team consisting of representatives from DEQ, Coastal Resources Management, Division of Fish and Wildlife, and the Northern Marianas College. The team monitors the nearshore ecosystem to detect early changes in the reefs that may be caused by upland activities and nonpoint source pollution. Activities include

  • analyzing water quality, including nutrients,
  • determining the percent cover of coral and algae,
  • surveying indicator species,
  • taking fish censuses, and
  • calculating sedimentation rates.

The team monitored the Lau Lau Bay reef for one year, with inconclusive results (as was expected for such a short time). The value of the study was that it demonstrated the long- term capacity of the agencies to monitor these resources and increased public awareness of environmental needs and resources.

The marine monitoring team also developed a Long-Term Marine Monitoring Plan that will allow the agencies to collect and analyze data to look for early effects of nonpoint source pollution on the coral reef ecosystem. These baseline data will help developers and permitting agencies structure the development in such a way that its impact on the marine environment can be limited. The data will also help enforcement agencies take early action to control poor development practices.

Developing public awareness

Coastal Resources Management will produce an educational video for the local schools to show the effects of nonpoint source pollutions on the Lau Lau Bay watershed and describe methods to control it.

DEQ conducted several activities that enhanced the public's awareness of the environmental values and problems of the Lau Lau Bay watershed. The marine monitoring team, in conjunction with a class of the Northern Marinas College, sponsored a public forum to discuss issues and solutions to problems in the watershed. Legislative leaders, agency directors, high school and college students, scuba divers, and the general public attended the forum to voice their concerns and to discover what steps are being taken to protect the watershed's resources. DEQ also conducted a survey of the dive operators on Saipan and determined the value of the reef to the CNMI. This information has been distributed to decision makers and the public and hopefully will be used when making future development decisions.

Erosion controls and other practices

The CNMI Interagency Watershed Working Group is also focusing their efforts on the Lau Lau Bay watershed. In May 1997, the group conducted a secondary road demonstration project in the watershed to teach heavy equipment operators best management practices to reduce sedimentation caused by eroding roads. More recently, the group has begun a revegetation demonstration project in the watershed to show landowners how to revegetate badlands and eroding slopes using simple and inexpensive bioengineering techniques to stabilize and recondition the soil.

Agencies plan to continue to study and conduct projects in the Lau Lau Bay Watershed. The Division of Environmental Quality will conduct a study to determine the erosion rates from different soil and vegetation types in the Lau Lau Bay watershed. These rates will be compared with the sedimentation rates on the reef to better determine the effect that erosion in the watershed has on the coral reef in the bay. Coastal Resources Management will produce an educational video for the local schools to show the effects of nonpoint source pollution on the Lau Lau Bay watershed and describe methods to control it.

The Interagency Watershed Working group hopes to involve additional agencies and groups in their efforts to study and protect the Lau Lau Bay Watershed, including the Historic Preservation Office to gain a better understanding of land-use history in the watershed; the Division of Forestry to conduct a large-scale revegetation project; the Department of Public Works to construct a better road in the watershed; the scuba operators to report unusual occurrences and events; and the Department of Commerce to determine the value of the natural resources and nature-based tourism in the Lau Lau Bay Watershed.

Prospects for the watershed and coral reef

Not every problem of the watershed has been fixed; in fact, the more intensively the watershed is studied, the more the CNMI realizes the severity of the nonpoint source pollution problem in Lau Lau Bay watershed. These problems commenced in the Japanese era (1920 to 1940) when roads were built, manganese mines were dug, and the land was cleared. World War II activities compounded the problem through bombing, fires, and some industrial development. The problems continue today as a result of periodic burning and poorly developed roads. Both the watershed and the coral reef remain stressed and relatively unstable.

However, from the recent studies focused on the Lau Lau Bay watershed, agencies and the public have learned about the sensitive nature of the watershed and the value of preventing nonpoint source pollution. Ideally, this awareness will lead to better protected land in which development will be more closely scrutinized and steps will be taken to protect the resources.

CONTACT: Susan Burr
Division of Environmental Quality Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands
(671) 234-6984

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