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WAI: Ola i ka wai—Water is life

There are over 83,000 cesspools across Hawai’i (the most in the country per capita), and these discharge 52 million gallons of untreated sewage pollution into the ground and groundwater every single day.

The Story of WAI: Wastewater Alternatives & Innovation, by Stuart Coleman.

Ola i ka wai—Water is life. WAI is the Hawaiian word for water, and we chose it as the name of our non-profit because protecting water quality is the heart of our mission.

Clean water is the most precious resource in the world, yet it is polluted daily in Hawai’i by hidden substandard sanitation systems. There are over 83,000 cesspools across the state (the most in the country per capita), and these discharge 52 million gallons of untreated sewage pollution into the ground and groundwater every single day. This pollution poses serious threats to human health and drinking water sources, while also damaging nearshore ecosystems, especially coral reefs.

WAI: Wastewater Alternatives & Innovations was co-founded in 2019 to reduce sewage pollution and help convert cesspools. As surfers, divers and ocean lovers, we spend a lot of time in the water and want to keep it clean. Our mission is to protect water quality and restore healthy watersheds by offering more efficient, affordable and eco-friendly solutions to wastewater management.

With the passage of Act 125 in 2017, the state has a mandate to convert all cesspools by 2050. WAI works with the federal government, the state and counites to develop new policies, innovative pilot projects and funding sources to help communities and individual homeowners with the difficult process of cesspool conversion. To help achieve our mission, WAI created five pillars or programs:  Innovative Technology, Pilot Projects, Policy & Advocacy, Outreach & Education, and Financial Resources.

For Innovative Technology, WAI has formed partnerships with nine industry leaders across the country who are working with us to bring new sanitation solutions to Hawai’i. Together, we have introduced new technology and successful pilot projects across the state, including the state’s first incinerating toilets.

As part of our Policy & Advocacy, we created the Cesspool Legislative Task Force and have already helped pass several new laws to create a new state grant program to help low-moderate income homeowners with the costs of conversion. For our Outreach & Education pillar, we created a Town Hall series and have hosted 11 Town Hall Meetings across the state with panels of legislators and scientific experts.

Our largest and most successful project is a workforce development training program called Work-4-Water. Created during the pandemic to help people find new jobs in the sanitation industry, this program offers a free eight-week training course at Hawai’i Community College in Hilo and Maui College. Funded by the Department of Labor, this program has already graduated over 75 people and received national recognition.

The challenge to covert 83,000 cesspools in the next two and a half decades seems overwhelming at times. But we know that protecting our water quality, our health and our environment is something we have to do. The good news is that we can create hundreds of new jobs, as well as local businesses and economic growth in the process. Together, we can work to protect our water resources and perpetuate the life of the land.