Until recently, Honolulu’s Ala Wai flood control project was moving ahead swiftly despite strong community opposition.

Now, it’s in a state of limbo. 

What flood-control features will ultimately take shape across the state’s most populous watershed  — and what responsibilities and costs the city will have in managing them once they’re built — remain unclear.

The $345 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-led project has also endured some setbacks in recent weeks. But corps officials say they’re using that added time to resolve those issues to further negotiate a deal with the city over how to pay for and manage the project.

“Right now there is time while we’re working out the PPA,” Jeff Herzog, the corps’ project manager for the Ala Wai, said Monday.

“PPA” refers to the project partnership agreement that the city and the corps must eventually sign before construction can start. Herzog said he doesn’t have an estimate on when it might be signed.

Heavy rains flow from the Koolau mountains and down into the Ala Wai watershed, spilling into Waikiki. This includes Manoa Valley. In the distance is Waikiki. Marcel Honore/Civil Beat

On Oct. 29, a Hawaii Circuit Court judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking the state from providing its $121 million contribution until the project delivers an environmental impact statement, or EIS, that complies with state law.

State finance officials had hoped to provide those dollars using an obscure funding mechanism called a “certificate of participation,” or COP, by Nov. 21, court records say.

Following Judge Jeffrey Crabtree’s order, however, they’ve suspended that effort pending a final ruling from the court, according to Gov. David Ige’s office.

Then, two days after Crabtree issued his injunction, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell sent Ige a letter with his own concerns regarding the flood control project’s compliance with state environmental law. The city couldn’t accept the project’s existing federal EIS because it doesn’t follow several key requirements under state law.

Specifically, responses to public comments in the EIS’ 2015 draft version weren’t sufficient, Caldwell’s letter to Ige says. Further, the final federal EIS fails to properly convey the greater impacts of the project, compared to what was listed in the 2015 draft version, it states.

Now, the state has to fix those with the Ala Wai project’s federal EIS so that they’ll comply with state law, satisfying both the court and the city.

“They’re figuring out what needs to be done on their end,” Herzog said of the city and the state. “We’ve reported that up the chain,” he added, referring to the corps’ headquarters in Washington D.C.

Despite the holdup, Herzog said the project no longer faces the same threats to lose its federal funding that it did earlier this summer. That’s because the city has formally agreed to accept the state funding once it’s available, he added.

If the city and state fail to resolve their issues with the EIS, however, then the funding — and the flood control effort’s fate — would be uncertain, Herzog said later.

Changes In Course

The flood control project aims to protect Waikiki and the surrounding neighborhoods in the watersheds from a catastrophic flood, as fiercer storms and sea level rise threaten low-lying areas.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the disaster would damage 3,000 structures and cost more than $1 billion in repairs. Such a project has been about two decades in the making for Honolulu. Nonetheless, local officials say they were caught by surprise when the federal proposal for the project materialized last year.

Residents in the watershed’s upper reaches subsequently voiced strong concerns at how the flood engineering might impact their neighborhoods and natural streams.

An opposition group, Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed, filed the lawsuit earlier this fall that led to Crabtree’s injunction.

In its complaint, the group says it would rather see “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.

Shortly after Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed filed its lawsuit, the corps announced it’s looking to remove three of the 10 detention basins in its preliminary designs for the project. Those three basins were slated for the Palolo and Makiki valleys. 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 Herzog.

The project no longer faces the same threats to lose its federal funding that it did earlier this summer.

This month, Herzog has been attending more neighborhood board meetings to help publicize the corps’ proposed changes. He briefed the McCully/Moiliili board on Nov. 7 and was slated to address the Kaimuki board on Wednesday.

The hope, some officials say, is that Herzog and the corps can take advantage of the pause in project progress to better address community concerns over the large catchment basins, flood walls along the Ala Wai Canal and other elements that would alter the local landscape.

David Kimo Frankel, attorney for Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed, said he remains skeptical over the corps’ proposed changes.

“We haven’t seen anything in writing about these changed plans,” Frankel said Wednesday. “We’ve seen vague descriptions of changes.”

Frankel further expressed concerns about the negotiations between the corps and the city taking place in private.

“We’re sort of in limbo — we’re waiting,” he said. “We really don’t know what’s going on.”

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