You might think state Rep. Sylvia Luke would care more about preventing a catastrophic overflow of the Ala Wai Canal and its feeder streams than do politicians back in Washington, D.C..

Apparently, you would be wrong.

It was a pleasant surprise last year when Congress appropriated $345 million for a major revamp of the canal and the watersheds flowing into it, a project federal engineers say is needed to keep a massive flood from wiping out Waikiki.

Hawaii had expected less than the full amount needed for the work. But apparently the federal government thought it was a high priority to avoid a disaster that would flood an estimated 3,000 buildings and cause more than $1 billion in structural damage, not to mention shutting down the state’s biggest economic engine.

The federal appropriation comes with stipulations. Hawaii must repay $125 million of the cost, and a local jurisdiction must agree to operate and maintain the flood mitigation project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ rendering of what could some day be underwater in and around Waikiki.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The work involves developing detention areas along the Makiki, Manoa and Palolo watersheds to catch water, debris and sediment before it flows downstream. This includes earthen structures to manage stream flows and a concrete pad in the Manoa stream to catch debris. The Ala Wai Golf Course would function as a detention basin as well once engineers install berms along the north and east perimeter.

Another key component is building concrete walls along the canal to contain rising water. The walls would average 4 feet high, with some less than a foot high and others as tall as 6 feet depending on the slope.

Gov. David Ige included the $125 million local share of the cost in his two-year budget proposal released in December.

Senate Bill 77, which would have appropriated the canal money, breezed through the Senate this session before hitting a roadblock in the House Finance Committee chaired by Luke. In fact, it never got a hearing and at the moment is dead in the water.

Luke questioned whether the state should pay for what she implied is essentially a Honolulu public works project, and she accused the city of refusing to sign an agreement to maintain the project once it’s built.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell denied that in a letter released last week, saying the city is willing to sign on once the details are negotiated with the federal and state governments.

This is where, regrettably, a personality clash seems to threaten a clearly needed project to stave off a calamity.

Water levels due to King Tides along the Ala Wai Canal during a high tide at 3pm at the same time that Hurricane Hector was skirting south of the Hawaiian Islands. If Hurricane Hector hit Oahu, this compounded w/ the King TIde could have devastated and flooded Waikiki. 9 aug 2018

The water level rose along the Ala Wai Canal during king tides in August, even as a hurricane was passing nearby.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Luke doesn’t much care for Caldwell, a political animosity that goes back years. And she’s not pleased that the mayor keeps coming back to the Legislature seeking more bailouts for his egregiously over-budget rail project. 

“I don’t like to make Kirk Caldwell happy,” Luke said in January as she discussed spending proposals that were in her crosshairs, including the canal work.

The Honolulu mayor is not the consummate diplomat. He has an often-rocky relationship with the City Council and consistently blames others for the rail project blunders that occurred mostly under his watch.

His letter last week urging legislative leaders to revive Ige’s proposal to appropriate the $125 million for the canal project was addressed by name to the Senate president, the House speaker, Hawaii’s congressional delegation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials.

Sylvia Luke’s name was nowhere to be found. If she got a copy, it was only because every legislator was CC’d.

It would be nice if Luke and Caldwell could sit down and work things out for the good of their constituents.

Barring that, other legislative leaders need to step up to keep this project alive.

Understand, this is a flood that will happen if rational human beings don’t prevent it. It easily could have come last year when Category 5 Hurricane Lane was barreling toward Honolulu before breaking down. Or it could be a slower-moving disaster courtesy of sea level rise over the coming decades.

Legislators have been quick to appropriate state money for disaster relief after last year’s Kauai flooding and Big Island volcanic eruption.

In this case they need to decide whether to spend $125 million now or await eventual economic devastation.

It doesn’t take a budget expert to figure that one out.

Read these related Civil Beat special reports:

Are We Ready?

Ala Wai Canal: Hawaii’s Biggest Mistake?


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