HANALEI — Water pollution from cesspools threatens Hanalei’s health, economy and quality of life.
Cesspools, a type of antiquated wastewater-treatment system where untreated sewage is discharged directly into the ground with minimal filtration, are still used across the Hawaiian Islands, with the largest quantities on Hawai‘i Island and Kaua‘i.
Hanalei is home to over 150 cesspools that represent a significant threat to Hanalei Bay and town.
Due to the high groundwater table and sandy soil present in Hanalei, cesspools pollute not only the local river and streams but also the bay itself.
A 2020 study conducted by scientists from Stanford University and hydrologist Matt Rosener of the Waipa Foundation confirmed that there is widespread human fecal contamination in the Hanalei River that is likely a result of nearby cesspools.
This pollution results in elevated levels of nitrogen and bacteria such as enterococcus, making the water less safe and desirable for recreation and aiding in the growth of harmful algal blooms.
In addition to the human-health implications, this is concerning for our already-stressed coral reefs, especially when considered in the context of a recent study conducted by the University of Victoria that found that coral reefs can recover from bleaching only when there is minimal “local disturbance” from polluted water.
“It’s important to understand that cesspools send raw sewage directly into the groundwater without any treatment in places like Hanalei where the water table is only a few feet below ground,” said Rosener.
“And because water moves easily through sandy soils, sewage pollution like chemicals and pathogens make their way into nearby surface waters all the time, but especially during rainy periods. We have a huge opportunity to improve water quality by modernizing our wastewater treatment here,” he said.
To address this problem, the state passed Act 125 in 2017, requiring the state to upgrade all cesspools to more-advanced wastewater-treatment systems like septic systems or aerobic-treatment units by 2050. However, there is no official plan for this transition to occur.
“Right now, we’re doing about 150 to 200 cesspool conversions a year,” said Stuart Coleman, executive director of Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations (WAI). “To fulfill the mandate of 2050, we would need to do 3,000 a year for the next 30 years, so we’re woefully behind.”
The Hanalei community has been trying to remediate their wastewater situation for over two decades.
In 2012, the Hanalei Watershed Hui released a watershed-management plan based on the current science to provide a clear view of the wastewater issue and to outline a pathway towards a safer Hanalei.
“Individual wastewater systems are not regulated to require upgrading until 2050,” noted Maka‘ala Ka‘aumoana, executive director of the Hanalei Watershed Hui. “It’s more important for me and for this program that we help people do those upgrades much sooner than that.”
A large grant was received by the hui in 2016 to upgrade cesspools, but homeowners did not sign on to the program in time and the funds were returned to the federal government. Since then, some smaller efforts in Hanalei have been able to make progress.
Rosener has played an active role in converting cesspools in Hanalei to more-advanced systems. Thanks to his work with the Hanalei Watershed Hui and the Waipa Foundation, most of the cesspools between the Wai‘oli and Waikoko streams have been upgraded, and those that remain are slotted for upgrade within the year.
Many of the remaining cesspools in Hanalei are in and around the town’s center, and these are the targets of the Hanalei Initiative’s current work on improving wastewater infrastructure.
The initiative is working to upgrade Hanalei’s cesspools using a systematic and transparent method based on environmental and economic priority.
This work is happening under the ever-intensifying effects of climate change. Hanalei’s already high groundwater table is getting higher due to sea-level rise, coral reefs are bleaching faster due to warmer waters, and extreme-weather events like flooding and hurricanes are becoming more frequent.
“There’s no question in a scientist’s mind that sea level is rising,” said Dr. Carl Berg, a senior scientist with the Surfrider Foundation.
“By 2050 we are going to see a major rise in sea level that is going to tremendously impact Hanalei,” said Berg. “What you do now can’t just be a short-term fix.” The solution to the cesspool problem must be one that holds up long-term and withstands environmental changes, he stressed.
“Not only does converting cesspools provide an incredible benefit to our people and our environment, it also is a great opportunity for job-creation,” said Joel Guy, executive director of the Hanalei Initiative.
“These are the kind of jobs we want our community to have. Because we depend so much on the visitor industry, creating jobs that don’t rely on tourism can be extremely beneficial to the community,” said Guy.
Hanalei needs to capitalize on the current situation and tackle the wastewater issue that has been plaguing its community for decades. Working together, the community feels it can provide Hanalei with healthier reefs, fish, surfers, residents and visitors, and create a stronger, more-independent economy.
The Hanalei Initiative has partnered with Seascape Solutions to create an online wastewater-system map where cesspools are classified by potential environmental impact based on proximity to the streams and sea, depth of groundwater and other factors.
This analysis will be used to prioritize systems for upgrade by identifying which cesspools have the greatest potential to harm the environment and human health.
Of course, the decision to convert a cesspool to a more environmentally friendly system must be made by the homeowner, and the high cost of upgrades is a barrier for many residents.
Purchase and installation of an aerobic-treatment unit, which is the preferred option in environmentally sensitive areas, can range in cost from $25,000 to $46,000.
To address this, the Hanalei Initiative is looking into grants, loans and donations to support cesspool conversions, with the goal of aiding homeowners who wish to upgrade, especially if they are in environmentally sensitive areas. Upgrading cesspools in these places would provide a service to the community by helping to keep streams and nearshore waters clean and safe.
Kaua‘i County Councilmembers Luke Evslin and Mason Chock have recently introduced legislation that would allow the county to receive funding from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to provide financial assistance to replace cesspools.
This fund is a partnership between the EPA and the state to fund clean-water projects, in this case, non-point-source pollution. Other possible sources of funding are available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the forms of grants and loans based on need. Upcoming federal infrastructure investments will likely provide further funding support.
The Hanalei Initiative is now compiling a list of homeowners from Hanalei to Ha‘ena who are interested in upgrading their cesspools, and is working to connect them with funding and resources. Anyone interested in learning more may visit the website, hanaleiinitiative.org, where a map of wastewater systems is located, to see which cesspools are posing the highest risk to the environment, and join an email list at hanaleiinitiative.org/water-quality.
Asher Radziner is with the Hanalei Initiative.