Semi-retired wildlife biologist Phil Hayward has discovered many things offshore and along the coastline of his hometown of Puako. But the most disheartening is how a simple flush of a toilet may cause sewage to end up in the ocean, affecting the very reef that’s made his community so cherished.
Hayward is leading a charge to beautify the water by removing cesspools, one at a time, while also hoping to inspire and engage the community along the way.
Hayward said he has found a link between the decline of coral reef health in Puako and residents’ cesspools, which are porous holes in the earth, sometimes lined with rock or brick, into which raw sewage is directly discharged. Twice in the fall, Hayward and reef ecologist Bob Teytaud collected 20 algae samples along the coastline from Paniau to Puako Bay. Those samples, analyzed by the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s marine science department, were found to have the nitrogen isotope, o15N, a tracer of wastewater. The values were as high as 9.0, 8.5, and 8.2 in areas closer to Paniau and as low as 4.3 and 4.4 near the church.
“The algae were all found to have nitrogen from human waste, which adversely affects coral reef health. Coral needs clean, clear, nutrient-poor water like an underwater solar panel,” Hayward said. “Nutrients from our waste promote algae and plankton, which cloud the water and cover the coral. Our waste also adds pathogens, which can make swimmers sick and further weakens coral health.”
According to the Hawaii Coral Reef Network, Puako is one of the island’s most well-developed fringing reefs and considered to be among the most spectacular reefs in the state. Still, concerns exist.
Last summer, a state Department of Land and Natural Resources study of reef fish at Puako and Pauoa showed a “drastic decline” in the populations of both bays, as well as decreases in coral cover.
According to that study, the abundance of all fish species declined 43 percent to 69 percent at Puako. The variations in decline reflect the different area of the bay surveyed. Of the 35 most abundant reef fish — which make up 92 percent of fish present in initial surveys — 31 declined in abundance. The declines ranged from 9 percent less yellow tangs to a 98 percent decline in the mamo, or Hawaiian sergeant, population. Kole, or goldring surgeonfish, populations at Puako dropped 61 percent; weke, or yellowstripe goatfish, dropped 86 percent; and the Achilles tangs dropped 97 percent.
Also in Puako, coral cover dropped by 35 percent and crustose coralline algae — the precursor to coral growth — was down 64 percent.
While environmentalists and others have long charged aging cesspools and poorly maintained septic tanks are causing pollution and affecting reef health, there was little scientific evidence to prove it until now, Hayward said. He also pointed out cesspools aren’t the only reef stressors. Possible overfishing and sediment runoff are other concerns worth examining, he added.
With no sewer system, each Puako Beach Lots home has either an individual wastewater system or cesspool. Hayward claims most homes likely have cesspools. Unlike a decade ago and longer, these homes are also full of people who are creating bad waste that goes on the reef, he added.
Marshall Lum, engineer for the state Department of Health’s Wastewater Branch, said there are approximately 50,000 cesspools on the Big Island. The department estimates there are 55 cesspools located at the 150 Puako Beach Lots. The remaining properties have either septic tanks or aerobic treatment units.
Federal regulations prohibit large-capacity cesspools, but do not apply to single-family homes or small businesses connected to their own individual cesspools, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However, “a goal has been established such that the construction of wastewater disposal systems depositing untreated sewage into the environment will not be allowed after the year 2000” and “new publicly owned buildings shall utilize a method of sewage disposal other than cesspools,” states Hawaii Administrative Rules, Chapter 62 of Title 11.
According to the South Kohala Community Development Plan, the groundwater table in Puako is near the surface and wastewater seeps into the ocean from the cesspools. This environmental degradation will continue unless a permanent solution to treat and dispose of wastewater is found.
“The amount of untreated wastewater entering the ocean needs to be reduced. The County General Plan specifically calls for the construction of a sewerage system for the Puako Beach Lots and that the sewerage system should utilize the existing resort wastewater treatment plant,” the plan stated. “Action to protect the marine resources off Puako’s coast needs to occur sooner rather than later. Delaying action may result in severe damage to the marine environment that may not be able to be undone.”
Instead of relying on the government officials, Hayward is hoping other Puako residents don’t think his idea stinks. His proposal is for individual homeowners to do cesspool replacement, deemed “one of the quickest and most effective means of improving reef health.” He is also leading an effort to create the South Kohala Utility and Improvement Design, or SKUID, district.
Created about two weeks ago, SKUID is now nonprofit with a volunteer, owner-only membership and a board. Hayward is serving as the organization’s environmental field officer. SKUID’s first major initiative is to help homeowners replace their cesspools or failing septic systems with aerobic treatment units, which are “a cleaner, smarter and greener approach,” he said.
SKUID will offer various consulting services, including confidential surveying of current systems and an appraisal of replacement for about $200 per home. It is working with Hawaii-certified Bluewater LLC, which offers financing on its systems. SKUID is also collecting donations and plans to hold fundraisers to help subsidize the replacements. Cost is what typically prevents homeowners from upgrading their systems, he added.
Another goal is to educate, including explaining what not to put down the drain and how to control nutrients and chemicals on landscaping features, Hayward said.
Once there is a 51 percent owner buy-in, SKUID will become a district, resulting in opportunities to apply for state and federal funding. The district could also enforce compliance of cesspool replacement area-wide and have a maintenance program to ensure systems work correctly, Hayward said.
“We are the stewards of our coast and cannot depend on the county, state or feds to do this,” he said. “We must form the district to ensure timely, cost-effective actions. We can also begin cesspool replacements immediately, and some owners have. Puako’s reef needs our respect, not our effluent.”
Since creating SKUID and casually sharing the algae survey results, 10 homeowners have expressed interest in cesspool replacement. Hayward expressed gratitude for their willingness to “step up and do what’s right, but that’s not easy, quick or cheap.” He called them great role models for the community.
Jan Nores, who owns two homes in Puako, supports the effort because of her love of the ocean and sincere want to malama it. She thinks it’s the residents’ responsibility as caretakers to protect the environment any way they can. Nores is looking to replace a 22-year-old septic system at one of her homes with an Envirocycle system, which cleans the wastewater so well that she can use it for irrigation. For her other home, which is being remodeled, Nores is replacing the cesspool with a new septic system.
Hayward said a Bluewater representative will be at the Puako Community Association board meeting, which begins 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Vacation Rental Office, next to the Puako General Store, on Puako Beach Drive. He also plans to attend the meeting, saying he’s available before and after to answer questions about the effort. For more information, visit skuid.org.