Can These Muddy-Looking Balls Make the Ala Wai Swimmable?
Balls packed with healthy bacteria may offer a way to restore the ecosystem of the polluted Ala Wai Canal.
As we walk along the murky Ala Wai, Paul Arinaga points to a bowl of tennis-ball-sized mud balls. We toss a few into the water, watch them hit the surface with a satisfying plop, then descend, trailing bubbles behind. It’s not just a test: Arinaga is hoping the Genki Balls—a mixture of molasses, rice or wheat bran, clay soil, water and microorganisms—will be deployed to make the canal swimmable and fishable in seven years.
“Every great city in the world has some kind of water feature,” says Arinaga, project manager for the Genki Ala Wai Project. “The Ala Wai could become a very vibrant waterway. Right now it’s kind of like a backwater.”
from left: Hiromichi Nago, president of EM Hawai‘i; Kenneth Kaneshiro, director of the Center for Conservation Research and Training at UH Mānoa; and Paul Arinaga, Genki Ala Wai Project manager
There have been many plans to clean up the much-maligned Ala Wai: from intermittent dredging to rafts of ‘ākulikuli plants meant to filter the water, with varying results. This technique relies on lactic acid bacteria and yeast, some of the familiar ingredients to brew a good beer. In the Genki Balls—genki means healthy in Japanese—healthy bacteria digest and oxygenate the sludge at the bottom of the canal. This helps it decompose, suppresses harmful bacteria and reduces foul odors, explains Hiromichi Nago, president of EM Hawai‘i, which makes the Genki Balls.
Nago says the technology has been used for more than 35 years in at least 100 countries to improve water quality, including in Hawai‘i. On the Big Island, The Four Seasons Hualālai Resort has been using the Genki Balls and EM-1 products since 2007, he says, to help maintain native anchialine, or brackish, ponds. He says sludge levels dropped from 19 inches to 4 in a few months.
EM Hawai‘i estimates it would take about a million balls to clear the Ala Wai, dropped in by paddlers and others who have volunteered to help. At a cost of 23 cents per ball, the total project would cost about $500,000, which Arinaga compares to the $7.4 million it cost for crews to dredge the canal in 2003, fishing out bicycles and tires along the way.
EM Hawai‘i and The Hawai‘i Exemplary State Foundation—which works to pair students with experts to find solutions for managing natural resources—are planning pilot tests at three sites: near the McCully bridge where two streams enter the water, near Ala Wai Elementary School and near the Waikīkī-Kapahulu Library.
Foundation president/UH professor Kenneth Kaneshiro says students and community groups can help make the balls, distribute them and monitor water quality: “That’s really the key to have the community take ownership.”
The company needs a permit from the state Department of Health to move forward, but Arinaga is already picturing the end result: people strolling along the canal, sidewalk cafés, maybe little pedal boats cruising along the sparkling waters.