How Hawaii Can Lead In Wastewater Management - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Stuart Coleman

Stuart Coleman is the executive director and co-founder of WAI: Wastewater Alternatives & Innovations.

The coronavirus pandemic is a turning point for Hawaii. We can either turn toward the past and double-down on tourism, gambling that “business as usual” is still our best bet. Or we can look to the future and learn from this pandemic, using it to create a more equitable and sustainable economy.

The current crisis requires bold leadership and a “crucible mindset” that can transform past problems and needed reforms into future opportunities. How will Hawaii’s leaders enact needed changes to transition away from a tourism-centered economy toward a more diverse, independent model?

One way is to create a new Conservation Corps to rebuild our decaying infrastructure and create more stable jobs that protect public health, the environment and our most valuable resources.

The Hawaiian proverb “Ola i ka wai” means “water is life,” and there is nothing more valuable than the health of our waters for our long-term health and survival.

Yet most people are unaware of the fact that Hawaii has the highest number of cesspools in the country per capita, and these substandard systems are polluting our waters every day. This sewage pollution poses threats to public health, the environment and the economy.

Akaka Falls on the Big Island. Water is life in Hawaii, yet we lag behind when it comes to managing our wastewater. 

Across the state, more than 88,000 cesspools discharge 53 million gallons of untreated wastewater into our groundwater and surface waters each day. That’s more than Hawaii’s worst sewage spill in 2006, when a sewer main in Waikiki ruptured, and 48 million gallons of untreated waste were diverted into the Ala Wai Canal.

That dramatic spill closed the beaches of Waikiki for a week and made international headlines. By contrast, cesspools across the state silently discharge even more sewage into our groundwater each and every day — out of sight, out of mind but not without consequences.

This daily deluge of hidden wastewater contains dangerous pathogens like cholera, Hepatitis A, gastroenteritis and others that can lead to serious illnesses. Is it any wonder that staph infections in Hawaii are four times the national average and rates of MRSA infections are twice the national average?

Hawaii’s waters used to be pristine and a cure for many ailments, but now they have become a source of contamination, especially after heavy rains.

Recent scientific studies show that COVID-19 survives and can be detected and tracked in municipal wastewater. In fact, companies like Biobot are sampling wastewater facilities to estimate how many people have the coronavirus in a geographical area. Eliminating the waste from cesspools entering our environment would provide protection against future outbreaks and create better water quality and a more resilient and healthy community.

The Hawaii State Department of Health has identified Priority 1 and 2 areas across the state where a total of almost 24,000 cesspools pose a threat to local drinking water supplies. Adding to these public health risks, the excessive nutrients from cesspool pollution pose significant threats to the nearshore ecology, including harmful algal blooms and damage to coral reefs and local fish populations.

These cumulative risks threaten the health of locals and visitors, keiki and kupuna, as well as Hawaii’s reputation as a world-class destination.

Cesspool Conversion Mandate

In order to deal with these issues, the Legislature passed Act 125 in 2017 to mandate the conversion of all cesspools by 2050.

As members of the state’s Cesspool Conversion Working Group, we are working to figure out a plan to upgrade almost 90,000 cesspools over the next 30 years. To be successful, we would need to start converting about 3,000 cesspools each year for the next three decades. But as of now, only about 150 are being converted each year. We have to ramp up that rate 20 times to fulfill the state mandate and help protect our drinking water and surface waters.

Currently, we don’t have a fraction of the skilled workers needed to start converting all of the state’s cesspools. Before COVID-19, Hawaii had the lowest unemployment rate in the country and a booming tourism economy.

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Today, the state has the highest unemployment rate in the country due to our over-reliance on the visitor industry. Now is the time to fix long-standing problems like our cesspool situation and create workforce development projects to get people back to work.

During the Great Recession of 2008, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” In the midst of this crisis, we have an opportunity to diversify our economy and an obligation to create a workforce that is not dependent on the ebb and flow of tourists on our beaches.

At our nonprofit Wastewater Alternatives & Innovations, we have been searching for solutions and working with top leaders at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s Water Resources Research Center, the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program, the University of Hawaii Community Colleges and the Hawaii Department of Health-Wastewater Branch. After months of brainstorming, we have created a new plan to jumpstart the cesspool conversion process.

In the midst of this crisis, we have an opportunity to diversify our economy and an obligation to create a workforce that is not dependent on the ebb and flow of tourists on our beaches.

The Work-4-Water Initiative has four main components: workforce development, infrastructure investment, cesspool replacement and water protection. Our plan is to create 400 shovel-ready projects across the state, replacing 100 of the worst cesspools in top priority areas of Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island.

The project will launch new training programs at the University of Hawaii Community Colleges in each county, and workers will receive hands-on experience with veteran wastewater professionals. Unlike the boom and bust cycles of the tourism and construction industries, the jobs created by the Work-4-Water program will be long-term, well-paid and critically needed for the monumental task of converting 90,000 cesspools across the state.

The W4W Initiative will provide needed workforce development and stimulate the economy. Along with having the most cesspools per capita in the country, Hawaii was also the last state to ban these substandard systems.

By introducing and testing innovative new sanitation systems, this program could propel the state from last place to one of the top leaders in wastewater management. More importantly, it will also create a useful blueprint to help the state fulfill its mandate under Act 125 to convert the remaining cesspools by 2050.

The ultimate goals of the Work-4-Water Initiative (and other programs like the Conservation Corps) are to protect public health, water quality and our natural resources, the inheritance we will leave to future generations. In the end, the COVID-19 pandemic could be the crucible that helps us turn our current crisis into a major opportunity for reform and true transformation. Let’s not waste this crisis.

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About the Author

Stuart Coleman

Stuart Coleman is the executive director and co-founder of WAI: Wastewater Alternatives & Innovations.

Latest Comments (0)

So what's the hold up? Why isn't this project any closer to implementation? It would  improve our islands and ocean while providing job skills and ongoing employment. Don't let this sunset in 2050!

MW · 3 years ago

"Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us." Walt Kelly, Pogo's creator/cartoonist, The Pogo Papers, 1953.(ref. Commodore Perry, War of 1812, after titanic Great Lakes naval battle, laconically reported, 'We have met the enemy, and he is ours.')History doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme, and, though beginning in tragedy (or bloody struggle), it often ends in .... farce.Environmental outrage - fizzles - when it's not them, but us!

Haleiwa_Dad · 3 years ago

The "cesspool problem" is a side effect of the subdivision scams which created thousands of zero-infrastructure lots at densities far too high for cesspools to be appropriate. These subdivisions are now populated with people who can't afford to convert their cesspools, especially at the inflated prices often quoted in media pieces such as this one.Fortunately the 2050 sunset means I'm grandfathered -- in true Hawaii fashion, just kick the can far enough down the road... no problem.

shorttimer · 3 years ago

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