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A notable challenge for island water resources is wastewater management, often reliant on inadequate cesspools. In Hawaiʻi, the 83,000 cesspools across the state are estimated to leak 52 million gallons of untreated wastewater daily into the environment, endangering aquifers and coastal areas.

To address this issue, researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Water Resources Research Center and College of Engineering will work with a team from several other universities and organizations to develop wastewater management technologies tailored to island environments. The project earned a $650,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). It is one of 15 projects nationwide selected for the NSF Convergence Accelerator program to develop innovative technologies and solutions to improve U.S. freshwater systems.

“Treated wastewater creates a new source of clean water for non-potable purposes, such as irrigation and firefighting, significantly reducing pressure on freshwater supply and contributing to a more sustainable water future,” said Zhiyue Wang, project co-principal investigator and assistant professor from the Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering and Water Resources Research Center.

At the end of the project, the team plans to deliver a proof-of-concept, island-appropriate, prototype wastewater infrastructure system, and an initial framework for a wastewater rating system. They will work with community partners, local wastewater professionals and the UH Mānoa Native Hawaiian Science and Engineering Mentoring Program, to broaden participation by underrepresented students and researchers and engage the community to assist under-resourced residents with cesspools in Hawaiʻi.

Also involved in the project is Professor Tao Yan from the Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering and Water Resources Research Center. Yan has conducted several projects in Hawaiʻi related to water quality and environmental microbiology. Some of those projects include: investigating possible dangers of chromium in Maui soil following the devastating wildfires, and testing Honolulu’s wastewater for the prevalence of the COVID-19 virus.

“Our islands have limited water resources, so developing a wastewater solution to prevent water pollution and protect the environment and human health is critical.” Yan said. “The solution can also be used to address similar issues in other islands across the Pacific, providing a much-needed tool to alleviate water quality stresses and to enable better stewardship of the natural resources.”

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