Bacteria Could Clean Up the Ala Wai Cheaply and Quickly

Apr 23, 2019

Genki Balls were developed by a scientist in Japan and have been used to clean waterways around the world.
Credit Ryan Finnerty

Honolulu’s Ala Wai canal is one of the most polluted waterways in the country. It’s so contaminated that in 2006, a local resident died from bacterial infection after falling into the Ala Wai boat harbor. But one local group thinks they can make the canal safe for swimming and fishing in just 7 years, without spending millions of dollars.

They want to use a technology called Essential Micro-organisms to target the sludge and other organic matter that accumulates in the Ala Wai, contaminating the water and generating bad odors.

Governor David Ige, Nainoa Thompson, and several high school students from around the Ala Wai threw the first Genki Balls into the canal.
Credit Ryan Finnerty

If you imagine the Ala Wai as a car with a dead battery, Essential Microorganisms, or EM, are like a jump start. Natural processes would normally breakdown the organic sludge over time, but pollution and excessive runoff have short circuited that process.

EM could jump start that cycle by introducing healthy bacteria.

The EM would be delivered in small balls of mud and sugar. They are called Genki Balls, from the Japanese word for heathy or wellness. The mud provides the vehicle for the EM and the sugar, in the form of molasses or a rice base, provides the fuel for the bacteria.

Paul Arinaga, Project Manager for Genki Ala Wai, estimates that each ball could be made for just 23 cents. According to those same estimates, it would only take about $250,000 worth of Genki Balls make a noticeable impact in the Ala Wai’s sludge levels and water clarity.

Gover David Ige, Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson, and several students threw the first ceremonial Genki Balls into the Ala Wai while the Hokulea was moored in the canal last week.

Ironically, the project would need to get approval under the Clean Water Act to introduce mud and organic matter into the waterway.