My Turn: Explore partnerships for water reuse at Kealakehe WWTP

I’d like to compliment the Department of Environmental Management and plant manager Alika DeMello in particular for the rapid response and implementation of a solution to the sewer spill that occurred earlier this month on Alii Drive. An overt sewage spill such as that one gets attention from the press and the public. But a much more insidious problem exists related to partially treated human wastewater.

Nutrient-rich water from the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant is routinely disposed via a sump (a hole in the ground) directly above the Honokohau Harbor. This polluted water, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, migrates through groundwater and is delivered to the ocean. Nutrient enrichment acts like fertilizer in the water; it stresses corals and promotes algae growth. Algal blooms are not a natural event in our bays, despite any seasonal cyclicity observed. Today, the coastal waters of West Hawaii are uniformly rated as impaired by the EPA. The harbor is especially impacted, for while cesspits may contribute some nutrients, each day 1.8 million gallons of polluted water from Kealakehe WWTP is dumped into the sump which is only half of a mile mauka of the harbor.

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The recent Supreme Court decision regarding Maui confirmed that when a hydrogeologic connection is shown to exist between the ocean and a source such as a sump or injection well, then the agency dumping polluted water without the appropriate permit is in violation of the Clean Water Act. Research has already established that the Kealakehe sump communicates with the harbor through groundwater. Thus the county is likely dumping in violation of the Clean Water Act and likely creating a potential liability to the taxpayers of a fine of up to $55,000 per day.

What is the solution? Reuse of the R1 water for irrigation is the answer. Water is a valuable resource and water reuse pays for itself. Let’s use our R1 water rather than throwing it away and polluting the ocean in the process. Reusing this water will reduce the demand for fresh water which will help relieve demand on our high elevation wells. When our wells are over pumped, then salt water is drawn into the drinking water leading to an unhealthy level of salt in the water, exceeding EPA secondary drinking water standards.

In order for the R1 water produced by the WWTP to be reused for irrigation, the salt level must be tolerable to vegetation. Currently the level of salt in the wastewater returning to the treatment plant is elevated because ocean water chronically leaks into the aging collection system. And sewage chronically leaks out and into the ocean. This must be remedied.

We have the unique opportunity to pay for some of the infrastructure upgrades to solve these problems using a third-party financing approach called Energy Saving Performance Contracts. ESPCs pose no cost to taxpayers while creating jobs in the economy. Both Maui County and Honolulu are moving ahead on their own ESPCs, the leadership there recognizing the value of avoiding issuing county bonds financed by taxpayer dollars. While county budgets are suffering due to COVID-19, private companies are well-poised to invest capital.

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The Environmental Management Commission is urging our county leadership to begin the dialogue process with private companies and explore a partnership for the purpose of moving toward water reuse at Kealakehe WWTP. There are creative solutions available. We need progressive leadership from the DEM and the county government to capitalize on the opportunities.

Dee Fulton is a member of the Environmental Management Commission, representing District 7.