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Wastewater Rights and Wrongs

Ma‘alaea Community Association members explore Maui’s wastewater reuse program and potential impacts.

January 16, 2014
Dr. Janet Six - Contributing Writer , Maui Weekly

"The cattle love it--it tastes like corn!" joked Steve Parabicoli about using reclaimed tertiary wastewater for Maui's thirsty livestock. But Parabicoli, the superintendent of Maui County's water reuse program, is very serious about the importance of sustainable wastewater management.

On Tuesday, Jan. 7, at the Maui Tropical Plantation, members of the Ma'alaea Community Association listened intently as featured speaker Parabicoli introduced them to the history of the science via a presentation entitled, "Waste Water Management 101."

According to Parabicoli, efforts to regulate the dumping of industrial and municipal wastewaters into our nation's oceans, lakes, rivers and streams began in 1972, when the Clean Water Act was first introduced. The goal of this act was to make our waterways swimmable and fishable. The first wastewater reclamation centers in the country were constructed.

Article Photos

There’s no mistaking reused water from potable. All R1 tertiary water reuse pipes, hydrants and spigots are a distinctive purple.

It wasn't until 1993 that wastewater reclamation efforts began in Maui County with the hiring of a water recycling program coordinator. Prior to this, minimally treated wastewater was "injected" into our near-shore reef system.

In 1995, all of Maui's wastewater reclamation centers were upgraded to R1 status and public education and outreach began in earnest.

There are three standards of wastewater treatment--R1is the gold standard. Today, all of Maui County's wastewater facilities are R1 treatment plants, except for the one on Molokai.

R1 water is clean enough to use to irrigate food crops.

According to Parabicoli, "The average individual produces 70 to 100 gallons of wastewater per day."

Multiply this by the number of year-round residents, seasonal residents and the visitors and you can see why Parabicoli is passionate about our "poop." Altogether, Maui County's wastewater reclamation centers process 1.3 billion gallons of effluent per year.

Wastewater arrives at one of the five treatment centers in Maui County as "activated sludge." It is loaded with bacteria from our bodies--many of which are pathogenic-- and first passes through a screen to remove solids.

"If you use them, do not flush 'flushable wipes,'" Parabicoli implored. "They do not breakdown and are a nightmare to deal with at our treatment facilities!"

Once the solids are removed, the water undergoes a range of treatments, including: aeration to increase aerobic digestion by maintain a healthy soup of beneficial bacteria, protozoa, amoeba, flagellates and other single cell organisms; a process to remove excess nitrogen; secondary clarifiers (settling tanks) to further separate out any solids; a sand filtration system; and lastly, in the case of the R1 facilities, sterilization via ultraviolet light.

The end result is what is known as tertiary or R1 water. While not potable (drinkable), it is safe to use for food crops and livestock.

Despite these efforts, most of the tertiary water Parabicoli and his colleagues are producing is still being injected.

In Lahaina, they are currently reusing 37 percent of it, primarily on golf courses and hotel landscaping in the Ka'anapali resort area. But there are plans in the works to use R1 water to grow sorghum on the West Side to be used as a potential biofuel.

Kihei is currently reusing about 50 percent, supplying tertiary water to large-scale consumers such as Monsanto, Goodfellow Brothers and the Elleair Golf course.

In Kahului, however, only 4 percent of the reclaimed water is being reused, dragging the county's reuse average down to 31 percent per year. The remaining 69 percent of the R1 water is injected deep into our near-shore reefs.

The Kahului facility is adjacent to thousands of acres in sugar production, making HC&S the perfect customer. Due to incentives, R1 water is less expensive, safe to use on food crops, and is readily available. So why isn't the sugar industry on board?

"Without getting too political," Parabicoli told an audience member, "it's likely about water rights."

Anyone who has recently driven to Hana has seen firsthand dry streambeds due to the continued diversion of watersheds by East Maui Irrigation in the service of sugar production.

"If they would use it [R1 water], we wouldn't need to inject it," Parabicoli stated. "What we are talking about is having the potential to return stream flows."

At present, the only island in Maui County currently reusing 100 percent of its reclaimed water is Lana'i.

If Parabicoli had it his way, all of Maui County would quickly follow suit.

Parabicoli said R1 water "may be coming to your neighborhood soon," with plans in the works to expand the infrastructure at the Lahaina Reclamation Center and to continue this trend in South Maui as well.

"We can provide full pressure 24 hours a day," Parabicoli stated.

He assured the members of the Ma'alaea Community Association in attendance there would be no mistaking tertiary water from a potable water source.

"Reused water travels in pipes, hydrants and spigots that are coded purple," said Parabicoli. " Also, no standard hose bibs are allowed."

For something that starts off so nasty, the end results could be pretty sweet, with tremendous payoffs for Maui's industries, community and environment.

For more information on the County of Maui's Wastewater Reclamation Division and wastewater reuse program, go to



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