Hawai’i County Allocates $1.8 Million to Clean Water and Coral Reefs

The Hawai‘i County Council on March 3 voted to approve the allocation of $1.8 million to address ocean sewage pollution in Puakō, Hawai‘i.

The Puakō coastline is one of 14 priority sites that have been identified in Hawai‘i as areas to be transitioned off of cesspools. Across the state, an estimated 88,000 cesspools release 53 million gallons of raw sewage into the groundwater every day. In waterways and coastal areas, like Puakō, it is sometimes mere hours before that sewage enters the marine environment. The Puakō community is leading the way in this transition to improved wastewater treatment.

Since 2014, the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) has worked alongside the Puakō community under their Clean Water for Reefs program to address wastewater pollution on the Puakō reef. Along the Puakō coast there are 643 homes that use cesspool, septic systems, and aerobic treatment systems— but due to Hawai‘i Island’s highly porous geology, those systems mean that untreated sewage often leaks directly into the ocean.

“In some places, if you flush your toilet in the evening, and you go for a swim in the morning, you’re actually swimming in your own sewage,” says Dr. Steven Colbert of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

puako volunteers test water quality
Clean Water for Reefs volunteers in Puako take a water sample for quality testing.

Untreated sewage contains harmful bacteria, pathogens and nutrients that pose a risk to human health and coral reefs. The increase of nutrients in the ocean can lead to coral disease and cause destructive algal blooms that can kill corals and damage the coral reef ecosystem.

In 2019, the Hawai‘i Department of Health allocated $1.5 million to the project, provided the County of Hawai‘i matched those funds by twenty percent. On March 3, Hawai‘i County Council voted to encumber those funds and agreed to the $300,000 match—bringing the project total to $1.8 million. The funds will support the development of a Puakō facilities plan for a wastewater system.

“This is a huge win for the Puakō community,” says Erica Perez, Senior Program Manager at the Coral Reef Alliance. “It took a lot of people to make this happen, and we are so incredibly grateful to all of our partners for supporting clean water for communities and coral reefs.”

Clean water for reefs volunteers
Volunteers in Puako learn about water quality testing and how to take water samples.
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