In addition to coral harvesting and overfishing, the health of coral reef ecosystems is threatened by land pollution that finds its way to coastal waters, including sediment, nutrients from fertilizer, pathogens from stormwater runoff or inadequately treated sewage, toxic substances, trash, and micro-plastics. Since 2011, Ridge to Reefs (RTR) has worked to protect and restore coastal and coral reef ecosystems by reducing this land-to-sea threats with projects in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, and in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Palau, and American Samoa. After careful review of 40 applications, the Woodard & Curran Foundation’s Giving Committee unanimously awarded RTR’s proposed project – Reversing the Impact of Cesspools on Hawaiian Ecosystem – the 2020 Impact Grant.
Identifying Safe and Affordable Alternatives to Cesspools
The goal of this project is to define a critical path for the affordable and sustainable transition of cesspools to proper treatment systems to effectively reduce contaminants and protect beaches and critical ecosystems in Hawaii. The $100,000 grant, disbursed over the course of three years, will go toward:
- Designing, testing, and certifying a green infrastructure wastewater treatment system that utilizes vetiver grass and biochar;
- Pilot testing and monitoring several of these systems in various locations in Hawaii; and
- Collaborating with local entities to influence cesspool conversion policy in the state.
The project’s impact will be significant. Cesspools are a state-wide environmental crisis with more than 88,000 remaining that release more than 53 million gallons of untreated sewage into the ground daily, in turn polluting drinking water wells, streams, and the ocean. To address this crisis adversely affecting human and environmental health, Hawaii passed a law in 2017 that bans new cesspools and requires existing cesspools to be upgraded, converted to a septic system, or connected to a sewer system by January 1, 2050. RTR’s project will eliminate the current cost barrier for low- and middle-income homeowners so the conversion price point will be at or below the current $10,000 tax incentive, allowing proposed conversion legislation to move forward with fewer impediments.
Modernizing Hawaii’s Wastewater Treatment
The city of Portland, Maine’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility processes an average daily flow of approximately 20 million gallons of wastewater. In Winter Garden, Florida where Woodard & Curran operates Water Conserv II Water Reclamation Facility and South Water Reclamation Facility the average daily flow is 30 million gallons. Combined, these major utilities treat less wastewater daily than the amount of untreated sewage leaching into surface and groundwater from cesspools in Hawaii. To put it into perspective, Hawaii-based Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations (WAI) Executive Director Stuart Coleman said much smaller spills from wastewater facilities on the islands have caused beaches to close for days and weeks. In 2015, a single 500,000-gallon wastewater spill due to heavy storm rains lead to the closure of renowned Waikiki Beach and made national headlines. He added, “Yet we have more than that amount going into our groundwater and surface waters every day.”
“We really appreciate this grant opportunity and are just thrilled we were selected,” said Paul Sturm, founder of Ridge to Reefs, adding his team will partner with WAI. “We’ve done smaller projects on different islands, but want to promulgate this in other areas of the Pacific and even Caribbean.”
“I’m really excited to learn more about Woodard & Curran through this process. It is really neat you guys are putting your money where your mouth is. A lot of firms are checking a box, but you guys are doing more than just checking a box. Clearly we’re all in this field because we care about each other and doing something good for the world.”
“One of the biggest issues Hawaii is facing is financing this upgrade and modernizing infrastructure,” said Roger Babcock, University of Hawaii at Manoa Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We really appreciate the help of Ridge to Reefs, their foresight, and the ability to look ahead to economical solutions. We’ve got a great team and we’re ready to go.”