Honolulu’s wastewater treatment system is maxed-out, but this hasn’t stopped stop state workers from pumping up to 18,000 gallons of brackish water a day, three to five days a week, into a sewage drain.

State employees have been pumping the water from the reflecting pool surrounding the state Capitol building for years, according to Peter Lopez, who was busy siphoning it on Tuesday.

Civil Beat went to the scene to investigate after a state worker raised concerns about the strain it could be causing on the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Center.

The city recently warned of a moratorium on any new development downtown unless sludge from the at-capacity landfill is trucked to other wastewater treatment facilities around the island.

At the Sand Island treatment plant, which serves Oahu’s urban core, a percentage of the treated water at the facility is composed of non-wastewater sources, such as groundwater or illegally directed rainwater off people’s roofs, which the city has tried to fight.

While it’s illegal to divert water into sewage drains, the state has a permit to pump the water from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m, according to Markus Owens, spokesman for the city’s Department of Environmental Services.

The state pays $1,500 a month, or $18,000 a year, to the city to pump the water into the sewage system, according to Bruce Coppa, director of the city’s Department of Accounting and General Services.

Thus, workers clad in knee-high, rubber boots wade through the water a few hours a day, several days a week with loud vacuum hoses that suck water and algae into a nearby sewage drain. The noise is so deafening it’s difficult to hold a conversation on the Capitol’s lanais while the work is going on.

Originally, the reflecting pool worked as an air conditioning system, cooling state offices. But the salt water corroded the pipes and the AC system was shut down in the 1980s. The water that wraps around the building in a moat-like fashion was converted into a reflecting pool.

While Lopez said the state had a plan to introduce a filtering system and light that would kill the algae, it wasn’t a budgetary priority.

“That’s why we’re still out here cleaning,” he said.

Ultimately the amount of water only makes up a small percentage of the water flowing into Sand Island and there may not be a better option, according to Roger Babcock, a specialist at UH Manoa’s Water Resources Research Center.

“It’s kind of a never-ending battle if you want to keep the water clear,” said Babcock. “And it’s an expensive goal to have. You are trying to fight nature.”

He said that they could blast sound waves through the water to break up the algae cells, or use such processes as oxidation, UV irradiation or filtration. But they would be costly and not necessarily solve the problem.

And given the salt content of the water, which comes from underground wells, reusing it to water the grounds could kill a lot of plants and cause salt build-up in the soil, according to Philip Moravcik, another specialist at the water research center.

“I’m not sure what you could do with the water,” said Moravcik. “It was a good idea, it looks nice, but it’s a lot of water. A fountain may have been a better idea.”

Peter Lopez

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