Gov. Neil Abercrombie and lawmakers often tout the importance of creating new jobs, providing early education opportunities and overhauling the state’s technology infrastructure.

But some people argue that Hawaii has more basic needs. Environmental groups, large landowners, ranchers and developers are calling on the Legislature to spend more money to protect a steady supply of fresh water. Specifically, they want funding for “The Rain Follows the Forest”, a Department of Land and Natural Resources initiative.

The program aims to protect mauka (mountainous or inland) watersheds as sources of fresh water by controlling invasive species. That means using fences to keep destructive feral pigs and goats out of sensitive habitat, and clearing albizia trees so their canopies don’t kill the plants below that hold the soil.

DLNR Director William Aila has fought for dedicated funding since the program’s inception in 2011 and this year has proven no different.

As lawmakers prepare to meet this month to finalize the state budget for fiscal 2015, the future of the watershed initiative and other DLNR requests — like fighting invasive species, funding law enforcement or implementing management plans — remain uncertain.

Forests, Not Faucets

The version of the budget the House passed last month didn’t give the DLNR any of the $3.5 million or 11 temporary positions it asked for to run the watershed program next year. The House also rejected the department’s $5 million request on the capital improvement side of the initiative.

The Senate felt differently, setting aside $2.5 million in general funds, $1 million in special funds and all the requested positions.

Budget negotiators from the two chambers will iron out the differences over the next couple weeks.

There was an outpouring of testimony urging the Senate Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Sen. David Ige, to fund the initiative after the House made its cuts.

The Trust for Public Land, a conservation nonprofit, encouraged senators to protect the native forests that are vital to ensuring a continued and reliable source of pure water.

“Acting now will pay off dividends for generations,” said Lea Hong, the trust’s state director.

Members of state agencies ranging from the Agribusiness Development Corporation to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands also weighed in.

“We understand that our source of pure water is dependent upon a system of healthy forested watersheds that capture rain and cloud moisture and then deliver it naturally to aquifers and streams,” Ivan Kawamoto of the Agribusiness Development Corporation told senators in March.

“Many of our forested watershed areas require direct on-the-ground management actions by professional staff to prevent further watershed degradation and forest loss.”

Big landowners, like A&B Properties, similarly called on lawmakers to restore funding.

McBryde Sugar Company owns 17,000 acres on Kauai, most of which falls in a conservation district. The vice president of A&B Properties told senators in March that efforts to fence ungulates out of key areas have been successful and should continue. Ungulates are mammals with hoofed toes.

“The source of fresh water is not the faucet, pipe, or even the well or stream it’s drawn from,” A&B Vice President Tom Shigemoto said in his testimony. “The real source is a system of healthy forested watersheds, not forests overrun by invasive plants and animals, which capture rain and cloud moisture and deliver it efficiently to aquifers and surface sources for subsequent consumption in our daily lives.”

Currently, only 10 percent of the state’s most important watershed areas are protected, something that has taken 40 years to accomplish, according to the DLNR.

The department had hoped to double that in the next 10 years — if it got the necessary funding, but that appears unlikely.

The initiative has lost steam as the governor’s priorities have shifted. In his State of the State address in January, Abercrombie devoted far more time talking about protecting the islands from the little fire ant, only mentioning watersheds once in passing.

The governor’s “Budget in Brief,” a document from December 2012 that highlighted his spending plan for the next two years, emphasized the watershed program as part of his key New Day initiatives.

His supplemental “Budget in Brief” last December doesn’t even mention watersheds as a priority initiative. Instead, the focus is on stimulating job growth, investing in Hawaii’s keiki and kupuna, and transforming the state’s technological infrastructure.

A Convention and a Spearfishing Study

Beyond the watershed initiative, the DLNR is lobbying the Legislature to fund other budget requests.

The department asked for $4 million next year to bring a major environmental convention, the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress to Honolulu in 2016. If successful, Honolulu would become the first U.S. city to host the event.

The House set aside $2 million to put toward its bid.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the Finance Committee, said $11.5 million would ultimately be needed to host the convention in Hawaii. She said that if the International Union for Conservation chooses Honolulu, the rest of the money will need to be raised through other public and private means.

The Senate hasn’t gone along with the House decision though, instead giving the department its full request.

There are also disagreements over how much money the DLNR should get for its enforcement division, which some lawmakers say is sorely underfunded. They view the Division of Conservation of Aquatic Resources Enforcement as essential. If there aren’t enough positions and funding, then the resources don’t get managed according to plan.

The House went beyond the governor’s request, appropriating $1.7 million and 12 positions to help the department fill vacancies, improve training and buy new equipment.

But while more money for enforcement looks likely, that’s not the case for some of the plans the department is working on to manage resources.

The DLNR also wants to do a $250,000 study on the effects SCUBA spearfishing is having in the waters off the west side of the Big Island. The House cut this to $50,000 and the Senate dropped it down to zero.

Lawmakers similarly rejected the department’s request for seven positions and $1 million to implement the Hawaii Ocean Resources Management Plan. The House slashed this to $151,876 and the Senate subsequently nixed any money for it.

On the invasive species front, lawmakers cut $1 million from the DLNR budget because they are considering separate legislation that would provide targeted funding. The Senate would prefer to provide $5 million in general funds for the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, but it’s unclear where the House stands.

A 2002 study cited in Senate Bill 2343 estimates the state needs to spend $50 million a year to fight invasive species, such as the fire ant and coqui frog, if Hawaii is to prevent billions of dollars in potential damage.

Overall, the latest version of the budget, the Senate draft, adds $4.17 million in general funds and $16.45 million in non-general funds. The administration had wanted $13.69 million in general funds and $12.34 million in non-general funds.

A conference committee of a select few reps and senators will ultimately determine the final shape of the department’s budget.

Ige and Luke, who chair their respective chamber’s money committees, will balance the DLNR’s requests against the demands coming from all the other state agencies. And they will have significantly less money to do so.

Conference committee meetings, which are expected to start later this week, come on the heels of the state Council on Revenues projecting no revenue growth in 2014 and hundreds of million of dollars less than expected for fiscal 2015, which begins July 1.

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