Upcountry a priority area for cesspool upgrades

Upcountry is one of 14 top priority areas in the state where cesspool upgrades are critically needed due to “significant risk” of drinking water and environmental contamination, a state Department of Health report to the state Legislature said.

“The report findings are troubling and show wastewater from cesspools is beginning to impact drinking water in some parts of Upcountry Maui,” said Dr. Virginia Pressler, the state health director. “The water in these areas is still safe to drink, with no evidence of bacterial contamination. However, there are early warning signs that tell us we must act now to protect the future of our drinking water and the environment.”

There are 7,400 cesspools in Upcountry that are contributing to “significantly elevated groundwater nitrate concentrations” in the area and downhill of the cesspools, according to the report that was released Tuesday. The elevated levels do not exceed federal contamination levels and “are not an immediate health concern.”

“The elevated nitrate levels, however, are a concern because they indicate that cesspool wastewater is affecting some public drinking water and may be problematic for future drinking water development in the area,” the report said.

There are five public drinking water wells in the area that are impacted by the cesspools, and there are three new drinking water wells in development, the report said. The cesspools Upcountry lead to an effluent discharge of 4.4 million gallons a day.

Upcountry is one of two priority 1 areas in the state, the other being Kahaluu on Oahu. This means that cesspools in these areas contribute to documented impacts to drinking water or human health and appear to impact sensitive streams or coastal waters. Steps need to be taken “as soon as possible using any means available” to address these cesspools, the report said.

There are no other Maui County areas in the top three priority slots.

The prioritization relied on analyzing risk factors, such as the density of cesspools in an area; soil characteristics; proximity to drinking water sources, stream and shorelines; other groundwater inputs, such as agriculture and injected wastewater; and the physical characteristics of coastal waters that may compound the impacts of wastewater in bays and inlets, according to the report.

Maui island has the third largest number of cesspools in Hawaii — 12,200 — discharging nearly 8 million gallons a day of effluent. Molokai has 1,400 cesspools, releasing 800,000 gallons of effluent per day, the report said.

The Big Island has the largest number of cesspools by far, 49,300, discharging 27.3 million gallons of effluent a day, the report said. That island has more than half of the total 87,900 cesspools in the state. Hawaii has more cesspools than any other state.

Cesspools are an “antiquated technology” for sewage disposal that have the potential to pollute groundwater, according to the state Health Department. They basically are holes in the ground and tend to be found in rural areas without access to a sewage system.

“In areas, such as Kahuluu on Oahu and Kapoho and Puako on Hawaii island, cesspools harm recreational waters and precious coral reefs,” said Keith Kawaoka, Health Department deputy director of the Environmental Health Administration. “All cesspools pose a serious threat to our natural environment.”

The report was ordered by the Legislature earlier this year in Act 125. In 2016, Gov. David Ige signed wastewater system rules that banned all new cesspools statewide. Prior to the ban, there were approximately 800 new cesspools per year.

The rules also provided a temporary income tax credit for the cost of upgrading or converting a qualified cesspool to a septic tank system or an aerobic treatment system or connecting to a sewer system. A taxpayer may apply for a tax credit of up to $10,000 for cesspools upgraded to a sewer or septic system during the next five years. The program is limited to a total of $5 million, or about 500 cesspool upgrades per year.

Under the law, owners of cesspools located within 500 feet of the ocean, streams or marsh areas or near drinking water sources can qualify for the tax credit. To date, about 50 taxpayers have used the program.

The cost to upgrade all of the state’s roughly 88,000 cesspools is estimated at $1.75 billion. State law currently requires the elimination of cesspools in Hawaii by 2050.

“Addressing cesspools can be costly for homeowners and thorough review of available funding and financing options is needed to assist homeowners with what is the most challenging aspect,” the report said. “Community engagement and partnerships will be key to the success of this broad effort.”

For more information on cesspools in Hawaii and the Tax Credit Program for Qualifying Cesspools, go to health.hawaii.gov/wastewater.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.