Cesspools Could Soon Impact Hawaiʻi's Drinking Water

Act 125, passed in the 2017 legislative session, bans all cesspools by 2050 and expands the tax credit to to homeowners with the intention of making it less financially burdening to upgrade existing cesspools. In December, the Hawaiʻi Department of Health released a report required by this law that investigated the number, scope, location and priority of cesspools statewide.

The Department of Health (DOH) identified four categories designating priority for cesspool replacement with Priority 1 posing significant risk of human health impacts, drinking water impacts, or draining to sensitive waters. Priorities 2 and 3 pose potential risks to drinking water and sensitive waters. Priority 4 designates cesspools where human health and environmental risks have not yet been identified. There are 42,730 cesspools (half of all cesspools in HI) statewide that fall under Priorities 1-3, with two Priority 1 areas: one in upcountry Maui and one in the Kahaluʻu, Oʻahu. These priority cesspools fall under 14 critical areas across the state; 5 on Hawaiʻi Island, 5 on Oʻahu, 3 on Kauaʻi and 1 on Maui.

UPDATE: Public informational meetings will be held in Makawao, Maui on Tuesday, January 9, 6-8pm at the Eddie Tam Memorial Center, 931 Makawao Ave., Makawao, HI 96768 and in Kahaluʻu, Oʻahu on Friday, January 12, 6-8pm at Kualoa-He‘eia Ecumenical Youth (KEY) Project, 47-200 Waihe‘e Road, Kaneohe, Hawai‘i 96744. 

There will also be a legislative informational briefing on Wednesday, January 10, 11am-12:30pm at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol, room 423. 

Hawaiʻi has far more cesspools than any other state—cesspools that inject tens of thousands of gallons of raw sewage into our groundwater every day. This is problematic as this input of raw sewage not only harms our aquatic and nearshore environments but can spread disease through Hawaiʻi’s primary source of drinking water.

“Hawaiʻi needs to race to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to wastewater management. We are the last place in the U.S. to ban cesspools. This report shows leaks from cesspools are undermining the quality of our groundwater and drinking water resources. Keeping our ground and drinking water clean is mission-critical in terms of protecting public health and preserving our environment. Act 125 is a step in the right direction, however, we believe more needs to be done to help make upgrades more accessible to Hawaiʻi’s people," said Marti Townsend. “Upcountry Maui is already seeing the impacts of outdated cesspools. The State should take these early warning signs seriously and act now to protect Hawaiʻi’s drinking water and the environment. That means releasing more funds to the Department of Health and making upgrades more accessible to Hawaiʻi’s people through stronger incentive programs.”

We recognize that upgrading cesspools can be costly. The Sierra Club will be supporting legislation that designates grant funds, particularly for low/median income cesspool owners who cannot take advantage of the tax credit made available by the law passed last session.

Click here for our educational sheet on cesspools in Hawaiʻi.

In the news:
- Hawaiʻi News Now: Cesspools could soon impact your drinking water, DOH says
- Civil Beat: From Bad to Worse: Hawaii’s $1.75 Billion Cesspool Problem