Hawaiʻi Region

STOP Sewage Pollution

The Problem

Sewage spills and failing wastewater infrastructure threaten coastal water quality by discharging raw and under-treated sewage into local waterways and the ocean. Sewage can contain bacteria, viruses & parasites that make people sick with gastro-intestinal symptoms, rashes, flu-like symptoms, skin and eye infections and worse! Sewage discharges also pollute waterways with excess nutrients that wreak havoc on coastal ecosystems by fueling harmful algal blooms that put human health at risk, cause fish kills and smother coral reefs.

Cesspools in Hawaiʻi

Cesspools are essentially pits or holes in the ground that receive wastewater, including untreated human waste, from homes or businesses. With an estimated 88,000 cesspools, Hawaiʻi has one of the highest cesspools per capita the United States. Cesspools do not provide any wastewater treatment but instead, temporarily  hold onto household effluent and let it seep into the surrounding ground water. More than 53 million gallons of partially treated sewage leach out of these cesspools across Hawaiʻi every day contributing to high nitrogen levels in ground and surface waters, as well as pathogens that can make people sick.

Local flooding conditions caused by rising sea levels and extreme weather events makes this situation even worse. Connections to sewers and other advanced wastewater treatment systems are needed in order to stop the flow of pathogens and nutrient pollution into local waterways and to reverse the human health and ecosystem damage caused by these systems in many communities.  Learn more about how Cesspools and Septic Systems pollute coastal waters.


In Hawaiʻi, large capacity cesspools were banned in 2016. In 2017, Hawaiʻi passed Act 125 which requires all cesspools to be upgraded by 2050. If you’re a homeowner with a cesspool, the most important way you can help STOP Sewage Pollution is by converting your cesspool. 

Visit the Potty Portal (developed by partner organization WAI) for numerous cesspool conversion resources. New and cheaper technologies for toilets and human waste management are also quickly improving. Take WAI’s Cesspool Homeowner’s Quiz to see which option maybe best for you. Some specific options for converting your cesspool could include:

  1. Advanced septic systems – treat wastewater more effectively than conventional septics and reduce nitrogen pollution by nearly 90%. 
  2. If your cesspool serves the equivalent of five (5) bedrooms or less, it can be converted to an Individual Wastewater System (IWS).

  3. If your cesspool serves the equivalent of more than five (5) bedrooms, it is considered a Large-Capacity Cesspool (LCC) and has more rules.

STOP Sewage Pollution

In addition to converting your cesspool, there are a number of personal actions you can take to STOP sewage pollution. 

  1. Convert Your Cesspool – The best step cesspool users can take is to convert to a more effective treatment system. 
  2. Share Your KnowledgeOver the last few years, Surfrider Foundation has worked to pass laws that mandate the conversion and update of cesspools, but we still need more public education and awareness when it comes to cesspool systems.
  3. Inspect and pump your septic tanks and cesspools regularly. This is usually recommended every 3-5 years, depending on the amount of use and soil type in your area. 
  4. Don’t use septic additives. They actually make septic systems less effective in treating wastewater. Learn more here. 
  5. Only flush the three P’s – Anything outside of the three P’s (“pee, poop and toilet paper”) can cause clogs and blockages in septic tanks and sewers alike, which prevent the normal flow and treatment of wastewater and result in sewage backing up into streets, yards and even your bathroom. 
  6. Don’t pour cooking grease or oils down the drain. Fat and grease can build up and cause blockages that lead to backed up systems.
  7. Conserve water inside your home. Many sewage failures occur because too much water is flowing into the wastewater system. When too much water enters a septic tank, sewer, or cesspool, its capacity can be exceeded and overflow. To conserve water in your home to reduce the amount of wastewater you send down the drain, check for leaking faucets and toilets (how to do that here), and consider installing water-conserving plumbing fixtures.
  8. Soak up the rain and reduce runoff. You can help reduce runoff by directing roof downspouts into a rain barrel or vegetated area, skipping irrigation and replacing water-thirsty lawns with native plants, and adding mulch to your landscaping to help soak up more rain and retain moisture. Even better, convert your yard to an Ocean Friendly Garden.

Learn More

For more on wastewater infrastructure and sewage pollution, check out Surfrider Foundation’s Beachapedia primer, and get involved in Surfrider’s effort to #StopSewagePollution here

Also, check out Surfrider Foundation’s blog series that explains how wastewater systems can fail and pollute our coastal watersheds. For more background, check out the rest of the series: Part 1: Cesspools, Part 2: Sewer Spills & Failures, Part 3: Septic Systems, Part 4: Combined Sewer Overages (CSOs), Part 5: Climate Change Impacts on Infrastructure, and Part 6: Personal Actions to Stop Sewage Pollution in Your Community