Where are we today?

At the date of this publication, Hawaii’s water resources continue to decline. Changing weather patterns influenced by global warming have led to long-term decreases in rainfall, which have contributed to declines in ground water recharge. With less water returning to nature’s underground storage facilities, water levels in Hawaii’s aquifers and flow in our streams have waned.

Over one hundred years of plantation stream diversions have also prevented waters from flowing along natural courses and recharging ground water supplies in appropriate areas. This lack of mauka to makai stream flow (from the mountains to the sea) has compounded the impacts of already decreasing ground water levels, negatively impacting instream uses (including native stream life, aesthetics, and public recreation), while also decreasing the amount of water available to feed coastal waters and support marine life in those areas.

Despite declining water levels, ground water withdrawals are on the rise, due to increasing urbanization. Growing use at a time of shrinking supplies has reduced water quality, which on Maui, for example, has threatened the resource to the point that specific wells can no longer be used. To make matters worse, the impacts of global warming will continue to complicate issues in ways that currently are not fully understood.

Given the fragile state of our resources, proactive management is needed now more than ever, but the Hawaii Water Commission — the primary agency responsible for managing water resources — is facing a budgetary and staffing crisis. Over one third of the agency’s positions are vacant, and it is unclear whether they will be filled. Despite laws on the books, large companies — former plantations included — continue to take advantage of this situation, and treat public water resources as their private property. Our management system has been reduced to might makes right, fueling even more litigation.

What do we need to change?

Despite Hawaii’s long struggle to manage water resources appropriately, there is hope for the future. Years of private appropriation of public resources inspired and informed Hawaii’s Water Code, which actually balances protection with beneficial use, and seeks to restore long neglected resources. This law can work efficiently if the Water Commission receives the resources necessary to do its job. Without more positions and funding, however, litigation as opposed to departmental planning will continue to establish public priorities.

The time is now to invest in Hawaii’s resources, by supporting the Water Commission and others engaged in resource management and data collection, and by looking beyond the law to ensure that we — all of Hawaii’s people — are doing what is needed to protect these resources into the future.

Funding for scientific monitoring and research at the county, state, and federal levels has declined along with the resources themselves. For instance, the Water Commission’s entire data collection branch was eliminated in 2009. In addition, the gauging network operated by the Pacific Islands Water Science Center of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a federal agency dedicated to collecting, analyzing, and disseminating hydrologic data, has been forced to cut its stream gauging every year for the last several years.

This reduction is not because management agencies have all the information they need; at this time of increasing pressure on declining resources, we need more information, not less. As a community, we must demand and provide support for a better scientific understanding of these complex issues to inform management decisions. This will require more funding for data collection and research, especially by USGS. We cannot continue to dole out water without a more complete understanding of how to manage these resources with at least one eye toward the future.

Given the fiscal reality of the current budget crisis, we need creative solutions to get this work done. Although government agencies have played an important role, and must continue to do so, we cannot rely solely on those agencies to do all the work for us. As communities we need to take the initiative to educate ourselves and kokua; for example, by supporting watershed partnerships, or by getting actively involved in management ourselves. Much of this can be accomplished by learning more about the water resources in our own communities. Where does our water come from when we turn on a faucet, and where does it go when we flush a toilet? What laws protect our water resources, and what can we do to help enforce them?

Finally, and most importantly, both individuals and government agencies must dig deep to find the political will to do the right thing and move forward from the plantation past.

To sustain Hawaii into the future, fresh water must be actively managed as a public trust, not as the private property of any business or individual. To accomplish this, some redistribution of resources is necessary.

Streams must be restored so that they can flow continuously into the ocean for ecological and human benefit, including recharging underground supplies and providing drinking water for our communities into the future.

Using alternative sources must be required, especially reclaimed and brackish water sources, both of which are largely under utilized and wasted.

Existing water users, whether individual homeowners or large sugar plantations, must invest in making their uses more efficient. Gone are the days when people or companies got away with wasting one of life’s most precious resources because no one could be bothered to line a reservoir or install low­flow fixtures. We have both the technological capacity and the social responsibility to do more with less, so that our natural systems will be protected and water supplies will be available into the future.

As we ponder what has happened to the waters of life, we must take decisive action now to protect these precious resources. If we leave that to future generations, it may be too late. After all, “he wai e mana, he wai e ola, e ola no, ‘ea!” It is water that empowers and water that provides life!

DISCUSSION: *This essay is the last in a 14-week series of excerpts from the book, “The Value of Hawaii: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future.” What do you think about D. Kapuaala Sproat’s perspective on water in Hawaii? Do you have any questions for her? Join the conversation about the topics in the book.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BOOK: The Value of Hawaii: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future

TALK WITH THE VALUE OF HAWAII AUTHORS: Come and talk with D. Kapuaala Sproat about her essay, along with the author of the essay on energy, Henry Curtis. We’ll hold a discussion at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26 at Civil Beat headquarters, 3465 Waialae Ave., Suite 200. The meeting is free and open to the public. But please RSVP to beatup@civilbeat.com so we can reserve you a spot. You’ll also be able to buy the book and get the authors to sign it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: D. Kapuaala Sproat is an Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s William S. Richardson School of Law, where she teaches courses and provides program support for Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law and the Environmental Law Program. Ms. Sproat has spent over a decade working on water issues on Oahu, Maui, Molokai, and Hawaii Island, both in her capacity as UH’s Environmental Law Clinic Director and as an attorney with Earthjustice, a public interest environmental litigation firm. She hails from the Island of Kauai and is a member of the Akana and Sproat ohana.