cleaning up the ala wai canal

Michelle Liu
March 16, 2023

The Ala Wai Canal has a reputation on Oahu. Locals know it as one of the island’s most polluted waterways with mud, organic debris, trash, and pollutants forming sludge that produces a toxic environment. You’ll see walkers, runners, and even paddlers along the canal, but you’ll rarely ever see anyone swimming or fishing.

That might change by 2026. The Genki Ala Wai Project announced in 2019 that it’s on a mission to make the Ala Wai Canal fishable and swimmable within seven years. It will do so with the help of bioremediation technology, which uses living organisms to remove pollutants from soil and water.

Genki means vitality in Japanese and Genki balls are bringing some life back into the canal. The balls include the crucial ingredient of effective microorganisms, which digests and oxygenates the sludge. Phototrophic bacteria then consumes the harmful chemicals the sludge produces and contains foul odors.

Genki balls created by Jefferson Elementary School students

“The Genki balls sink to the bottom of the waterway and millions of microbes immediately begin to break down the poisonous gases, the sludge layer, and inhibit the bad microbes by producing antioxidants,” says Mary Ann Kobayashi, the education coordinator with the Genki Ala Wai Project. “The improved environment allows other organisms to return, grow, and flourish once again.”

Garret Zakahi has already noticed the Genki balls working. The principal of Jefferson Elementary School walks along the Ala Wai Canal every day and has done so for the last three years.

“When I started walking the canal, there was a smell. It’s hard to describe, but it was unpleasant,” Zakahi says. “Since the Genki ball project began, the smell has dissipated. The water appears clearer and a lot of the sludge has disappeared.”

Aquatic life has also returned to the Ala Wai. An endangered Hawaiian monk seal was spotted swimming in the canal at least two times in the past week.

“Its sensory system must have determined the water environment was healthy and would ensure its survival,” Kobayashi says.

Fish, turtles, and manta rays have also been spotted within the last year.

“I’ve seen sand and reefs within the canal. There are huge schools of juvenile mullet and aholehole (Hawaiian flagtail) swimming along the sides. I’ve seen jellyfish, barracudas, and pufferfish. I even saw a 3-foot hammerhead shark in January,” Zakahi says.

Zakahi was motivated to involve his students with the cleanup effort. The school partnered with the Genki Ala Wai Project to teach students about Genki balls. Every year, the children make more than 1,300 Genki balls to toss into the canal.

Students lining up to make Genki balls

“We’re educating our keiki so they learn the importance of giving back to the community,” Zakahi says. “Our students love the hands-on experience and the connection to our aina. They truly feel they’re making a positive difference.”

Community groups and businesses also organize Genki ball toss events to help restore the Ala Wai ecosystem. The president of the Lokahi Canoe Club says they got involved because the canal is their home for practicing sprints for regattas and other types of racing.

“Many people look disgusted when I tell them I paddle in the Ala Wai, but I truly enjoy my time there. It’s a beautiful place,” Gina Gonce says. “I want to help make the canal a healthier environment so that everyone can fully enjoy it.”

The Genki balls appear to be making a difference. Jefferson Elementary School is one of two test sites where data is being collected. In July 2021, volunteers measured 23 inches of sludge. In May 2022, the sludge depth dropped down to 5 inches. Results were less dramatic at the Ala Wai Elementary School test site, but the sludge still decreased by an inch within the same timeframe.

“To regain and sustain healthy waters, it’ll take the whole community, from the mountain to the ocean,” Kobayashi says. “Education, collaboration, and open communication are crucial.”

Students preparing to throw Genki balls into the Ala Wai Canal

Zakahi says he’s looking forward to the full revitalization of the canal. Until then, he’s still enjoying his walks along the Ala Wai.

“I can look for aquatic life and take a break from work,” Zakahi says. “It helps relieve the day-to-day stress of being a school principal.”

If you’d like to make Genki balls and toss them into the canal, contact the Genki Ala Wai Project for information on upcoming events. Donations are also needed for Genki ball materials and water testing costs.

Photos courtesy Jefferson Elementary School

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