The Sewage Dilemma

Before you start to panic – thoughts of sewage infiltrating your beloved surf breaks begin filling your head – know that something is being done, albeit slowly. In 2010 the EPA reached a settlement with the City and County of Honolulu. Their summary of Hawai’i violations stated that, “Honolulu has illegal sanitary sewer overflows throughout the city’s collection system and effluent violations from its two largest wastewater treatment plants… (these) overflows have caused millions of gallons of untreated sewage to be discharged into waters of the United States.” As a result, they fined the city $1.6 million and mandated that it address sanitary sewer overflows and upgrade its two largest treatment plants to secondary treatment facilities. Hawai’i is one of the only metropolitan cities in the U.S. that does not have secondary treatment of sewage.

In an effort to stop further sewage spills, the settlement called for the repair and improvements of Honolulu’s dilapidated sewer collection system as well as the implementation of an upgraded maintenance and cleaning program by 2024. In addition, it stated that the upgrades of the main treatment facilities be finished by 2034. Lori Kahikina, Director of the Department of Environmental Services, says, “We are in our fifth year of the federal consent decree and have met every milestone in it to date.” 

The EPA believes these changes will “prevent millions of gallons of untreated sewage from being discharged from its sewer system… (and) By increasing its treatment levels to secondary treatment the City will reduce discharges of 3 million pounds of total suspended solids and 30 million pounds of biological oxygen demand annually.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is that fixing something as decrepit and extensive as our island wide wastewater treatment system – that serves an excess of a million people daily – is not easy or cheap. The
City initially estimated that the cost of the injunctive relief for the collection system would be approximately $3.5 billion and the installation of a secondary treatment system would be over $1.5 billion. The first five years of the project have proved that the actual costs will be much, much higher.

In order to help pay for these upgrades and their maintenance, residential sewer fees have been steadily increasing. On July 1, 2014 they rose four percent and this past July they went up an additional five. This is
the fifth consecutive year locals have seen a rise in their rates, and the trend is expected to continue. Currently, the monthly base fee is $71.81 and the volume charge is $4.29 per 1,000 gallons.

For some, this is a small price to pay to keep the ocean from becoming an extension of our sewer system, but many Oahu residents live hand to mouth and can barely keep up with the escalating living costs of the island as it is. If the City and County of Honolulu needs additional money to pay for improvements and upgrades, how much financial responsibility should developers have when they build structures that will house thousands of people whose waste will go into our already overly capacitated system? If homeowners’ sewage fees are growing this rapidly, what kind of increases are developers looking at?

Kahikina explains how “the developer of any major project, whether it be a new sub-division or a 40-story high rise, may have to provide improvements to the wastewater system, to include upsized or additional piping and pumping stations, to handle this new flow in order to receive the city’s approval to proceed. Each project pays a Wastewater System Facility Charge, which may be offset by contributed improvements, to contribute to the cost of additional system capacity.”

Every new project proposed by developers has to be reviewed and approved (or denied) by the Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP). The Wastewater Branch of the DPP assesses the estimated impacts to the already existing sewage facilities and gives permits accordingly. It is also their job to enforce regulations and make sure developers are doing what they are supposed to when it comes to any sort of sewage issue. These days, they have their hands full.

Oahu has a yearly growth rate of 1.12% and an average of 4.5 million people who visit the island annually. That is a lot of people and, sorry to be lewd, an incredible amount of poop. New buildings go up all of the time, ag land continues to be turned into sub-divisions and the bureau of tourism continues to promote Oahu as one of the top tourist destinations in the world. New residents and additional tourists means more infrastructure and yes, you guessed it, more poop. Kakaako already smells like sewage and there are an estimated 5,000 new apartments in the dozens of developments that are going up as we speak. Residents in the area are concerned, and they have every right to be; 2034 is a long way out.

Although it isn’t going to happen overnight, thanks to the EPA’s intervention, Oahu’s deteriorating sewage system is being fixed and upgraded. Kahikina notes that 63 miles of the worst pipes have been rehabilitated, less and less fresh water is entering the system each year and there has already been a downward trend in the number of both wet and dry weather sewage spills. Although this is a costly process, developers are being forced to do their part and hikes in residential sewage fees are requiring homeowners to contribute as well. Hopefully, these changes will keep oceans and wildlife safe, beaches open and barrels blue.