Hawai'i's Solvable Cesspool Crisis

Hawai’i has a problem with coral die-off. 

Coral die-off is a big deal because coral reefs protect shorelines, house a high percentage of sea life, and support fisheries and tourism. Reefs buffer up to 97% of the energy from waves and storms, protecting coastlines from flooding and erosion, and reducing property damage and loss of life. Healthy coral reefs support commercial and subsistence fishing, as well as tourism and recreation, all of which are important to local and global economies. In addition, coral reefs are home to an abundance of sea life. Reefs account for 1% of the world’s marine environment, but they are home to 25% of marine animals, including some fish, turtles and algae that aren’t found anywhere else. This biodiversity is important in many ways, including the development of new drugs and possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses, and other diseases.

The good news is, the cause of the problem is well-identified. Research published in the journal Nature definitively shows that coral in areas with high nitrogen run-off are more susceptible to die-off during heat waves, and those with low nitrogen run-off not only withstand heat waves but even can increase total cover during warm–periods. 

In Hawaii, 83,000 homes have failing septic systems or cesspools, 43,000 of which pose a risk to water resources. Cesspools have significant impact on the quality of drinking water, general water quality, reef health, and the health of Hawaii’s residents and visitors. Without adequate treatment, nitrogen-rich wastewater leaches from cesspools and aging septic systems into groundwater and then out to surrounding reefs, gradually killing coral and replacing it with immense algae patches, destroying the larger ecosystem. 

With improved wastewater treatment on land, coral reefs could be improved and restored in a few decades.

LeapFrog Design is thrilled to be working with WAI: Wastewater Alternatives & Innovations to bring our plant-powered water reuse solutions to Hawai’i. We are excited to be part of the solution to one of the largest drivers of coral reef decline and groundwater pollution on and around the islands: untreated wastewater.

WAI is bringing many important stakeholders together to protect both island freshwater and the ocean. Because of the variety of land and use conditions across the Hawai’ian islands, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. Everyone – homeowners, companies, innovators – benefits from collaborating to put together the right technologies for each unique circumstance.

“Often, climate change issues seem insurmountable,” said Adam DeHeer, Co-Founder and CEO of LeapFrog.“The coral die-off around the Hawai’ian islands is a problem we can solve. Together with WAI, we have the technical solutions, the right stakeholders, and the passion to get this work done.”

The State of Hawaii aims to replace all of their failing septic systems or cesspools by 2050, and has allocated $5 million to do so. However, existing onsite solutions are too expensive, costing between $25,000 and $60,000 per home. Our system, combined with an incinerating toilet, is a beautiful, environmentally-responsible complete sanitation solution that costs less than the leading alternative.

Treating greywater for reuse onsite deals with Hawai’i’s coral die-off problem at its source. In the right land and use conditions, LeapFrog’s plant-based treatment platform provides a solution with multiple benefits:

  • Protect coral reefs,
  • Beautify the property,
  • Mitigate the cesspool health risk,
  • Recycle up to 50 gallons of water per day, and
  • Save water, money, and carbon.

Learn more about cesspool conversions with LeapFrog's Estuary.