As lawmakers consider approving a local match to secure federal funding for the Ala Wai flood control project, a wall of opposition to the plan is rising.
Seven of the neighborhood boards in the upstream area affected by the $345 million project have passed resolutions asking for the work to be stalled and rethought.
The neighborhood boards in Manoa, Palolo, Diamond Head/Kapahulu/St. Louis, McCully-Moiliili, Makiki-Tantalus, Ala Moana-Kakaako and Kaimuki have officially asked lawmakers to stop the project for now, listen to their concerns and reconsider its impacts.
In five of the communities, where board members often bicker over trivialities, the votes against the project have been unanimous.
Scores of passionate opponents have spoken out at board meetings over the past four months. They are fueled by anger over the growth of tourism, the desire to protect Hawaii’s remaining natural waterways, mistrust of state and local government and fears of government mismanagement that could jeopardize their homes.
Their fears have in some cases been confirmed by current or former government officials who have attended the board meetings, agreeing with worried participants that the project has not been thoroughly and adequately vetted.
At a meeting in Manoa, Bruce Anderson, the director of the state Department of Health, said he supported the resolutions. Anderson said even top state officials had not been fully briefed on the ways communities outside Waikiki would be affected by the project.
The Waikiki Neighborhood Board is scheduled to consider a similar resolution May 14. But it’s far less likely to pass that board because many residents there believe the project could save them, if and when a natural disaster occurs.
The goal of the plan, developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is to prevent severe flood damage in Waikiki in the event of a major storm.
It calls for building a network of 10 debris and detention basins, some of them concrete-reinforced, in the Ala Wai watershed area and in Manoa, Palolo and Makiki valleys. A wall of varying heights would be built along the canal.
The Corps of Engineers estimates the Ala Wai faces a 1% chance of a major flood each year that could cause up to $1.4 billion of damage in Waikiki. The tourist area, with its 54,000 residents and nearly 80,000 daily visitors, is considered the state’s major economic engine.
In the neighborhoods above Waikiki, about three dozen property owners would lose part or all of their land for the project or would be directly affected by the construction, according to the Corps report. Many more residents could be indirectly affected.
The federal government is putting up the bulk of the money for the construction, with Hawaii required to provide $125 million at some point in the future. A spending bill for the local match died in the most recent legislative session but Gov. David Ige remains committed to helping to fund the project.
The City and County of Honolulu would administer the project after it is completed. In a recent letter to the Legislature, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell wrote that the city is ready to sign a partnership agreement with the Corps of Engineers to allow the construction plan to go forward.
“We can’t have the attitude of ‘Let’s stick our finger in the dike and hope it’ll save Waikiki.'” — Kathryn Henski, Waikiki Neighborhood Board
The flood control plan has been under consideration by policymakers and politicians for more than two decades.
Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Kathryn Henski said that since 2013 there have been numerous meetings seeking resident comment. She has always paid attention, she said, because she has lived through hurricanes and floods in the past, and seen how destructive they can be.
“We can’t have the attitude of ‘Let’s stick our finger in the dike and hope it’ll save Waikiki,'” she said.
Until recently, however, many residents of nearby neighborhoods were unaware of the project or believed that it affected only the Ala Wai area.
Under the original plan, the only water catchment area would have been at the Ala Wai golf course. The new plans would also affect a number of residential communities upstream of Waikiki.
At the neighborhood meetings in these areas held over the past three months, residents have appeared in big numbers to testify against the project, citing a mixed bag of concerns.
Many opponents opened their testimony by saying that they bore no ill will to Waikiki and wanted residents there to be safe from floods.
But they believe that their interests are being pitted against those of Waikiki.
“We all understand Waikiki is an economic engine, and we are trying to keep them from being flooded,” said Ellen Watson, who serves on the Manoa board, at a hearing in February. “We as residents give up a lot to support the hotel industry and the tourism industry in Waikiki, and this is just kind of over the top.”
“If the detention basins (overflow), like a bathtub flowing out, our valley is going to flood. I mean it’s really going to flood. All the way down to Manoa Marketplace, everything down the valley is going to be gone.”
Watson also questioned whether the city would competently manage the flood control system when it is completed.
“I think our officials have not maintained streams well, have not maintained canals well. Look at what happened to Aina Haina, without even a big bunch of rain,” she said.
Winston Welch, a board member in the Diamond Head district, said many people believe they were not given adequate information about a project that could have an adverse effect on them.
“While it may work for Waikiki, it doesn’t work for the other neighborhoods,” Welch said. “Though Waikiki is the engine, other neighborhoods may end up getting sacrificed if there is an event like the one they are describing.”
The resolutions passed by the boards, which vary in wording slightly, are to some extent purely ceremonial.
The boards serve only in an advisory capacity for the state and Honolulu, so their actions don’t have the force of law.
“While it may work for Waikiki, it doesn’t work for the other neighborhoods.” — Winston Welch, Diamond Head Neighborhood Board.
But they represent an important sounding board for constituent concerns. Lawmakers and government officials attend their meetings regularly and take their questions seriously.
The driving force behind the effort to block the flood control project by energizing the boards is a retired engineer named Dave Watase, the son of the founder of a powerful and politically well-connected construction firm, Mark Development.
In the past five decades, Mark Development has built more than 1,600 housing units in Hawaii.
Watase owns what he believes to be the largest single parcel of private land that would be affected by the project, a 4-acre parcel on a forested lot with 200 feet of frontage on Waiomao Stream.
An access road and dam for a detention basin would be located on the property, which is zoned for construction of several homes.
Watase first learned of the flood-control project three years ago, he says, when he received a letter telling him that his land was being contemplated for government seizure. He says the notification letter was sent to the vacant lot so it was lost in the mail for a while.
He began alerting affected property owners, including those who live near the proposed construction projects and had not been informed of the plan. He said many became irate when they found out.
“The problem is our legislators, our governor, our mayor, they are looking at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get federal pork, and that we have got to keep it,” he said. “I think it’s wrong.”
Several neighborhood board presidents said Watase told them about the problems that would be caused by the project and invited him to give presentations at their meetings.
Watase has spoken at numerous meetings and in many cases, the discussion opened with his presentation on the dangers presented by the project.
“Watase has been going around to all the boards,” said Sharon Schneider, who chairs the Kaimuki Neighborhood Board. “He’s directly affected. He’s been there all the time to support this resolution.”
Watase found a less welcoming audience when he approached the Waikiki Neighborhood Board and asked it to sponsor the same kind of resolution that the other boards had endorsed. Several board members fended him off at a hearing March 12.
Waikiki board member Mark Smith said that Waikiki would be devastated in the event of a major flood, that even a small rise in the water would cause elevators to stop working, leaving residents stranded.
He said that Waikiki residents need to be protected.
“We need to do our duty to Waikiki, to people who live in Waikiki and whose livelihoods depend on Waikiki,” Smith said. “I know what Dave Watase’s motivation is. My motivation is for the people of Waikiki.”
Watase has been particularly successful mobilizing opposition where schools are affected. At many local schools, caring for nearby streams has become a regular and beloved part of the environmental curriculum.
Dozens of schoolchildren have appeared at board meetings in Manoa and Makiki, with their parents and teachers joining them in adamant opposition to the plan.
They ask what the dams and detention basins would do to the streams, leaving board members to say only that they don’t know.
Several board chairs said they asked representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers to speak at the board meetings, but they didn’t respond. Corps officials also did not respond to a request for interviews for this story.
The biggest complaint, voiced at many board meetings, is that residents do not believe they have been adequately informed about the project and its implications for their communities.
Rep. Dale Kobayashi, whose district includes Manoa and McCully, told residents at the Manoa meeting in February that the government’s failure to notify residents about the flood project was “one of the most unconscionable acts in recent history,” because it had been done to benefit the tourist industry at the expense of local residents.
“You’re talking about some of the largest corporations in the world here, they are insured, and they have had record profits in that industry for years,” he said. “So it is a little hard to shed tears for the tourist industry for the small risk of a catastrophic flood. We need to draw a line in the sand here.”
At the same meeting, Bruce Anderson, director of the state Department of Health, said that state officials had never been fully briefed on the project. From 2015 to 2018, Anderson served as administrator of the Aquatic Resources Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
“I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that there has been a robust discussion with the state on this issue and I think that is true of the county as well,” he told Manoa residents.
“This is a project that is being proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers … I think there’s a lot of discussion needed on this issue.”
As a resident of Manoa, he said, he welcomed the passage of the resolution seeking a time-out in the process.
“More power to you, wanting to get more information, wanting to understand the goals in this project and how the project will actually help mitigate some of the concerns we have,” he said.
Read the 2013 Civil Beat special report, “The Ala Wai Canal: Hawaii’s Biggest Mistake”.
Civil Beat readership has more than doubled in the past nine months. That’s incredible growth for which we’re so grateful.
But for a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall, readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism. The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters.
To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?