Research Projects 2020-2022

Differentiating treated and untreated wastewater contamination in a tropical coastal community using microbial community genomics

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR: Craig Nelson
Co-INVESTIGATORS: Tracy Wiegner
Graduate Fellow: Nicolas Vanderzyl

On a rocky shoreline, one student crouches next to a bucket while another stands ready to write on a clipboard
Students help with sampling shoreline waters at Honoliʻi as part of a project to explore new ways to detect wastewater contamination.

Sewage contamination of coastal waters is a global phenomenon and is an important public health concern. In tropical areas where coral reefs thrive in relatively pristine waters, even trace pollution can threaten ecosystem processes, tourism, fisheries and coastal protection. The state of Hawaiʻi has the highest density of cesspools of any state in the union, and there is growing concern that sewage contamination of groundwater and the subterranean estuary may be affecting coastal ecosystem health. This proposal seeks to develop modern genomic methods of examining the structure of the bacterial populations in the water to detect trace sewage contamination as well as differentiate sources. We will work in a community with a longstanding concern about sewage contamination (Keaukaha, HI) with state and local government partners to survey waters near a sewage treatment plant and adjacent areas with high cesspool density to determine when and where sewage is detected. These results and the new methods will be developed and translated to local stakeholders for future use in ongoing efforts to ameliorate cesspool leakage in Hawaiʻi.