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Po‘ipu, Koloa chart cesspool conversion initiatives

PO‘IPU — Cesspool conversion, a perennial issue throughout the islands, becomes more pressing with each passing year.

Many know the state Legislature’s Act 125, passed in 2017, mandates the upgrade of cesspools to septic tanks or septic systems by 2050. The process is expensive.

State and local lawmakers and advocacy groups discussed paths forward, and highlighted available loans and grants to homeowners, during a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday.

“The state of Hawai‘i has the most cesspools than any other state in the country,” state Rep. James Tokioka (Wailua, Lihu‘e, Puhi, Koloa and ‘Oma‘o) said. “It is a big problem and it’s coming to a head now.”

The town hall was sponsored by the nonprofit organizations Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations (WAI) and the Kaua‘i chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Featured political guests included Tokioka, state Senate President Ron Kouchi (Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau), Kaua‘i County Council Vice Chair Mason Chock and Councilmember Luke Evslin.

There are about 88,000 cesspools across the state. The 13,700 cesspools on Kaua‘i discharge an estimated 19.5 million gallons of effluent into the ground per day, according to town hall presenter and WAI Program Manager Christina Comfort.

“Much of that effluent reaches the groundwater and surface waters and the coastal ocean, causing a range of environmental problems — also human health problems,” Comfort continued.

Kaua‘i is home to three Cesspool Conversion Priority Areas defined by the Hawai‘i DOH.

The Po‘ipu-Koloa and Kapa‘a-Wailua priority areas are designated Priority Level Two, meaning the areas’ cesspools potentially impact nearby drinking water resources.

Hanalei is designated Priority Level Three, as its cesspools potentially impact ecologically-sensitive waters, including coral reefs, impaired waterways and waters with endangered species.

An ongoing study will likely add Kekaha and Ha‘ena to Kaua‘i’s list, according to Comfort.

Wednesday’s meeting was dedicated to the 3,600 cesspools in Po‘ipu and Koloa, which discharge about 2.6 million gallons of effluent per day (town halls for other high-priority communities on Kaua‘i are planned, but have yet to be announced).

Ecologist and Surfrider Senior Scientist Dr. Carl Berg, who’s spent years studying the water quality of Waikomo Stream in Koloa, claimed his and others’ studies show cesspools are damaging it.

“For us, there’s no doubt at all that Waikomo Stream is impacted with human sewage, which makes it a public health risk,” Berg told attendees Wednesday. “And it dumps right out at Koloa Landing, where everybody goes snorkeling and playing. They may have clean water when they’re outside diving, but then they come back in and coat themselves with highly polluted water.”

Comfort also claimed University of Hawai‘i scientists found the nutrient intake of Po‘ipu algae was “dominated” by wastewater input.


Septic tanks are often seen as the go-to alternative to cesspools.

But they leave much to be desired, according to WAI speakers, who said standard septic tanks treat pathogens but don’t treat nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which can also pollute waterways.

WAI personnel and guest speaker Paul Sturm of Ridge to Reefs, a watershed-management nonprofit with projects throughout the Caribbean and Pacific, offered a litany of more-sustainable options for households and communities.

These included a Norwegian company’s waterless “Cinderella” toilet, which incinerates waste into a pathogen-free and odorless ash, enhanced septic systems capable of treating nitrogen, and Ridge to Reefs’ own bioreactor gardens.

County and private sewer systems, containerized Cambrian-brand technology, Biomass Controls’ biochar omniprocessor, and liquid-only sewer systems were among community-scale options discussed.

Funding opportunities

Cesspool-conversion grants and loans highlighted by Wednesday’s speakers included some offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development section.

USDA Rural Development’s Section 502 program helps low-income households anywhere on Kaua‘i qualify for loans, according to WAI.

Section 504 can provide loans up to $40,000, with interest rates between 1 and 2.5%.

“It’s been a little tricky, because not a lot of people qualify because of higher incomes in Hawai‘i and higher real estate values,” WAI Executive Director Stuart Coleman said. “But we’re trying to work with USDA to really push them to be more flexible and fund more cesspool conversions.”

Coleman invited interested Kaua‘i residents to contact WAI for assistance when filing a USDA Rural Development loan or grant application.

But Coleman is most excited by the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“We have the opportunity to bring in tens of millions of dollars to help homeowners with these conversion costs,” he said. “But we need to make sure that DOH is ready to receive those loans and grants. So we’re working with them and trying to get them to be more proactive to help local homeowners … to do that, we’re working with the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.”

Kaua‘i County is already making use of the revolving fund: Last year, Chock and Evslin introduced and passed legislation to create a cesspool conversion program operated by the County Housing Agency, using Clean Water State Revolving Fund monies.

The CHA is now working to implement the program. It may fund between 30 and 40 cesspool conversions, The Garden Island reported last year.

No other county in Hawai‘i applied for DOH Clean Water State Revolving Funds last year, and Kaua‘i’s initiative drew praise from Chock and Evslin’s fellow speakers.

“Kaua‘i County, as Sen. Kouchi said, really is the leader in the state,” Coleman said. “Your county councilmembers, all of them, but especially Luke and Mason, have just done a spectacular job of really trying to find out how do we access these funds.”


Scott Yunker, reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or
Source: The Garden Island

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