After months of additional study, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now looking to remove three large detention basins in the Palolo and Makiki valleys from its controversial Ala Wai flood control plans.

In their place, however, the corps aims to include more basins and channels in the Manoa Valley, where the threat from fast-moving flood waters in a heavy storm remains the strongest, according to Jeff Herzog, the federal agency’s project director.

The corps also now aims to extend either a wall, berm or some other barrier along the Palolo Stream as far as Date Street to provide better protection to Iolani School and Ala Wai Elementary School, Herzog said.

The goal, he added, is to slow the flood waters where they’d be most severe to protect Manoa and, specifically, the University of Hawaii Manoa upstream, as well as Waikiki and the surrounding neighborhoods further downstream.

“By modifying the system in the Manoa Valley, it essentially eliminates the need for any features in Palolo Valley,” Herzog said.

“We don’t know what the system is going to look like” yet, Herzog said, but he expects the added Manoa features would all go on public land.

Waikiki Beach Hotels with Ala Wai Golf Course Canal aerial 0402.
As part of its flood control project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would create a detention basin in the Ala Wai Golf Course and flood walls around the Ala Wai Canal. The plan has met stiff pushback in surrounding communities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nonetheless, the corps’ preliminary designs have been met with fierce resistance in communities across the Ala Wai watershed. A collection of residents, schools and organizations worry the proposed network of detention basins will disrupt the upland streams’ natural flow and that the proposed flood walls by the Ala Wai Canal will block views and blight the area.

Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed, a grassroots group, filed suit earlier this month to halt the project, claiming it lacks the necessary state environmental impact reviews.

In its suit, the group says it would rather see a “nature-based watershed restoration and protection, given current built conditions, consistent with ahupuaa principles and Native Hawaiian customs and practices.”

The corps’ initial flood-control plan previously included such habitat restoration but that element was scrapped in 2012.

The agency now hopes to partner with the state on smaller-scale, isolated restoration projects within the watershed.

No Official Recommendations Yet

The corps’ latest proposed revisions are really internal recommendations, and Herzog said they were announced after the corps’ leadership in Washington, D.C., gave approval to proceed with them last week.

Herzog had previously indicated such changes could be coming during a community meeting and in public testimony this summer. The corps has been studying more closely since November how the flood waters from a severe storm might impact Hawaii’s densest and most populous watershed.

The changes would remove some of the flood control plan’s most contentious features.

Palolo homeowners were among Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed’s key leaders, including its president, vice president and treasurer. Some of the most galvanizing testimony against the flood control project has come from students, parents and teachers of Halau Ku Mana, a Hawaiian charter school located next to the Makiki basin’s proposed site.

Still, David Kimo Frankel, the attorney for Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed, expressed skepticism Monday that the corps was serious about the latest features since it has yet to make them official.

“It’s a press release. It’s a public relations gesture,” Frankel said, referring to a statement the corps put out last week on its recommendations. “We don’t have a legal document. We have a document full of weasel words.”

In order to finalize the corps’ recommendations “we just move forward with the design process,” Herzog said Monday.

City leaders were caught off guard last year when Congress appropriated $345 million for the Honolulu project. For it to advance, the corps must partner with the city and the state.

The city wants to eventually maintain the flood-control features. Gov. David Ige’s office, meanwhile, has agreed to provide $125 million to cover capital costs — even though the Legislature this year declined to approve that funding.

Ige’s office now plans to cover that cost through a little-known funding mechanism called a “certificate of participation,” or COP. Such certificates don’t require the Legislature’s initial approval, although the Legislature must later approve their debt service, according to an Ige spokeswoman.

COPs have been used just three times in the past decade — in each instance to finance energy savings projects at the Honolulu airport, according to Ige’s office. Those projects totaled over $225 million combined.

A select committee of Honolulu City Council members is scheduled to hold a public meeting to update its independent analysis of the Ala Wai watershed project from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Ala Wai Elementary School.

Sen. Brian Schatz, meanwhile, has been watching closely and working to advance the project from Washington.

“We are pleased that the Army Corps is showing some flexibility, and that they are listening to community concerns. We still have a long way to go,” Schatz said in a statement released by his office Friday.

“This will require that we rebuild trust and listen to each other, but this is nevertheless good news for all involved. This will help us to honor our commitment to keep people in the Ala Wai watershed safe from flood risk in the era of climate change.”

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