Last week, in the early hours of a bluebird day in Honolulu, a group of Hawaiian Airlines employees and their children lined up at the edge of the Ala Wai Canal and took their pitching stance. In each hand was a Genki Ball, a tennis ball-sized mound of cured mud, rich with microorganisms, that is helping restore the polluted waterway.
Volunteers threw them into the canal before grabbing another and doing it again – until 2,625 balls had been tossed. Upon sinking to the canal floor, the balls began digesting layers of harmful contaminants and thick sludge that have built up over the decades and restricted the water’s oxygen levels.
Oʻahu visitors have likely seen the Ala Wai Canal, one of the many picturesque backdrops of Waikīkī. People often run, walk their dogs or bike along its 3.5-mile promenade, and outrigger canoe paddlers often practice for races in its gentle waters. However, the iconic landmark was recently named one of the most polluted waterways in the state.
All of that is changing, thanks in part to the hard work and brain trust of the Genki Ala Wai Project and its volunteers. Since 2019, the Genki Ala Wai Project, a nonprofit group under the Hawaii Exemplary State Foundation, has gathered community partners – including Hawaiian Airlines – to accomplish one big goal: making the Ala Wai Canal safe for fishing and swimming in seven years (by 2026).
The science applied is called bioremediation, which is the use of living organisms to remove pollutants from soil and water. The process is so simple that everyone from elementary school classrooms to corporate offices has joined the effort.
“This is the first project of its kind in the country and allows children and adults to work together toward an easy solution for a big problem,” said Hiromichi Nago, project advisor and president of EM Hawaii, LLC, the distributor of the specific microbial mixture used to make the Genki Balls.
Here’s a snapshot of how it works: the mixture, called EM•1® , which contains dormant strains of lactic acid bacteria, yeast and phototrophic bacteria, is mixed with clay soil, rice bran, molasses and water. Then, it’s hand-shaped like a snowball and left to cure in a cool, dry space for two weeks. The result is a solid, seemingly indestructible mud ball that activates after it is embedded in the sludge-covered canal floor and interacts with the water. At that point, “the fermentative bacteria begin to digest and oxygenate the sludge. At the same time, the phototrophic bacteria consume harmful gases and contain foul odors,” according to the project website.
Hawaiian Airlines has supported the Genki Ala Wai Project through financial donations and volunteers since 2022. For example, thousands of our employees made and tossed about 10,490 Genki Balls into the Ala Wai during a company-wide purpose and values retreat last fall. Our various workgroups have also leveraged the tossing events for team bonding.
“Restoring the Ala Wai has long been a challenge for our community, but over the past few years, there has been this collective understanding that returning those waters to a healthy state is a critical step in creating a more resilient and sustainable Hawaiʻi,” explained Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, director of community and cultural relations at Hawaiian.
“A lot of community leaders - many of which are our partners - have passionately stepped forward to move these efforts along, but the Genki Ala Wai Project has really stood out,” she continued. “It has helped the people rise and find a role in what seemed like an unsolvable problem. The project has empowered the youth and community to learn about this place and to be a part of the solution, and many of our employees who have thrown a Genki ball now see the Ala Wai with a renewed sense of pride and hope.”
When Nago announced this project five years ago, he estimated 300,000 Genki Balls needed to be tossed into the Ala Wai to make it swimmable and fishable by 2026. As of this month, he expects to reach two-thirds of that total by the end of the year, and Nakanelua-Richards shared Hawaiian will continue providing support until the project is complete.
Until then, Nago and his team are working on engaging new and existing partners and continuing to collect meaningful scientific data at the toss sites and events. However, the impact of the microbes' work is visible to the naked eye.
“With or without data, you can see how areas that were once impossible to see through are now mostly clear,” he emphasized. “Another indicator is wildlife. Fish have returned, including species like moi [Pacific threadfin], ʻamaʻma [striped mullet], ʻāholehole [Hawaiian flagtail] and pāpio [trevally]. People even spotted a Hawaiian monk seal swimming up the canal. That was a big moment for everyone. All of that is because the layers of sludge on the reef are beginning to clear and oxygen is returning. So, we know this bioremediation is helping.”
Aside from the Genki Ala Wai Project, Nago and his team at EM Hawaiʻi are surveying locations on Maui – including areas impacted by the West Maui wildfires – to identify opportunities for bioremediation. His team has also engaged communities statewide to restore health to ponds and streams in Nānākuli in West Oʻahu and at the Queen Liliʻuokalani Garden in Hilo, Hawaiʻi Island. They recently launched the Genki Kapālama Project in partnership with Kamehameha Schools to use Genki Balls at the Kapālama Drainage Canal in Honolulu.
To learn more about the Genki Ala Wai Project, visit www.genkialawai.org.