Until new technologies and competitive costs drive bigger changes, Hawaii remains dependent on groundwater. Groundwater provides 99 percent of Hawaii’s domestic drinking water and about 50 percent of all the fresh water used in the state.

Other than bottled water, there is no recourse for importation. We have to manage what we have and we need good metrics to navigate.

The good news is there is no immediate statewide water emergency such as Californians have faced. The even better news is there is a lot of water on the surface, in the ground and surrounding the state. The bad news is our physical supply and allocation needs seem more volatile than we thought and costs will probably rise.

Other than bottled water, there is no recourse for importation in Hawaii. Flickr: Jose Jaf

Barring a “Black Swan” event — random and unexpected — Hawaii’s most likely future water crisis will be financial: the investments needed for system upgrades, new source development, improved wastewater management, water recycling, storm water capture and better transmission.

Even more consequential will be the larger economic and environmental implications if water has to be priced closer to its full value to fund long-standing obligations under Hawaii’s unique public trust doctrine.

Water Governance

Water management is complex. It spreads across different federal, state and local jurisdictions with many hands on the steering wheel. Each of the agencies in charge has its own technical, financial and legal puzzles but integrated water governance remains challenging.

By law the ultimate burden for statewide water planning and permitting sits with the Commission on Water Resource Management. The Enivironmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the four county water departments, the Department of Health’s Safe Drinking and Clean Water Branches and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands all share in this and play significant roles.

The CWRM, like other water agencies, has very capable leaders but faces persistently insufficient resources, vexing bureaucratic procedures and episodes of disruptive political and legal guff when a snarky issue arises. Federal funding cutbacks also appear to be in the offing.

Government is not alone in the water business. A strong Hawaii Community Foundation water initiative has identified possible ways to create greater supply through water conservation and capture.

The U.S. Geological Survey has a world-class water research operation on Ford Island. And the University of Hawaii has received a five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation grant to undertake fresh research and help bolster its Water Resource Research Center. 

Sustainable Yield Challenges

Central to most water conversations is the legal sustainable yield limits set for water withdrawals in each aquifer and, collaterally, the standards needed to maintain surface flows in our streams.

Sustainable yield is the current estimate of how much ground water may be available under current conditions while maintaining healthy aquifers. How the numbers are derived is crucial. Surface and ground water are managed separately and water quality is not fully integrated into the calculations.

Sustainable yield always comes down to a set of numbers, but what gets counted and what factors are included or excluded is critical. Everyone, especially the major stakeholders such as the counties, landowners, Native Hawaiians, developers, farmers and environmental advocates, no less than the public at large, have huge reliance on them. That is why it leads to considerable administrative and judicial litigation.

Next Generation Planning

The Hawaii State Water Code (Chapter 174C) articulates the essential uses of water for drinking, agriculture, commerce, natural resources and Hawaiian rights. This requires a constant balancing act area by area across all the islands, which the CWRM does well. But a bigger approach is needed.

Similar to the 1985 efforts that helped break a 10-year deadlock over the water code, it’s time for a new cross-sector effort involving water experts and thought leaders who can walk in the shoes of decision-makers, take stock, peer into the future and suggest pragmatic amendments to current water endeavors. 

This kind of project must be extremely patient and disciplined, properly resourced, comprehensive and independent. It must build on the best legacy, current and emerging information and examine related challenges like contamination from cesspools, pharmaceuticals, and oil leaks as well as the deterioration of the old agricultural ditch infrastructure.

It’s time to review the Water Code itself and propose any specific new rules, policies and procedures.

The project probably needs to deliberate in at least four stages.

First, without getting hideously complicated and always maintaining reasonable running room for course corrections and adaptive changes, a cross-sector working group needs to review the current sustainable yield framework and ensure that it incorporates the risks of future supply and demand, especially climate and land cover changes.

Second, a pragmatic analysis of the projected financial issues involved in assuring effective financing over the next 25 years is needed. This must include the costs and possible sources of future investments and a quantitative understanding of potential returns on investment. We need scenarios for fully honoring all the required beneficial uses identified constitutionally in 1978 and enumerated in the water code.   

Third, it would be wise to re-examine how water governance works across the different managing entities. Federal, state and county water leaders have heavy burdens and perform vital functions. The issue is how coordination for next-generation needs will be further strengthened and synchronized.

Finally, it’s time to review the Water Code itself and propose any specific new rules, policies and procedures that might improve the technical, financial and governing functions for the next generation.

The time to start is now. Strategic complacency may be fatal.

Editor’s note: The author was paid to run a set of sub-task force group meetings for HCF’s Fresh Water Initiative aimed at streamlining the use of and application procedures for recycled water with the long-term goal of expanding the use of certain water types. With the NSF project, he assisted UH with the development of an interdisciplinary “team science” compact and with agency and stakeholder interviews.

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