Big Island Facilities Need To Work Together For Hawaii's New Normal - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Rick Gaffney

Rick Gaffney is a lifetime resident of Hawaii, an environmentalist and a fisherman.

Hualalai — Hawaii island’s third youngest, third largest and third most active volcano — is dwarfed by her sisters, Mauna Kea to the north and Mauna Loa to the south.

Nevertheless, Hualalai created much of the land that now supports the majority of West Hawaii’s population and infrastructure.

Dark, river-like flows of hardened lava, produced by Hualalai as recently as 1801, meander downslope from cinder cones dotting the volcano’s flank.

Where those flows meet the ocean at the island’s westernmost point, Keahole, the land drops off precipitously. Within a stone’s throw of the shoreline, the water is over 500 feet deep.

At Keahole, a broad lava plain abuts the blue Pacific. It is home to two key facilities in West Hawaii: 1) the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport and 2) the Hawaiian Ocean Science and Technology Park, which is managed by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.

At the latter, companies engaged in aquaculture, ocean science and developing entrepreneurial technologies (like ocean thermal energy conversion) sprawl along the coastline. Here one finds easy access to a shoreside park and coastal trails from which to fish, watch whales, take in a vivid sunset, study the intersection of land and sea or, as my wife and I often do, exercise a couple of golden retrievers.

Keahole, the westernmost point of Hawaii island, is a place of abundant sunlight, deep ocean waters and wide-open plains. Brian E. Powers/

When the four of us drive home from that shoreline — past an abalone farm and pricey drinking water bottling companies, then across the Queen Kaahumanu Highway and onto Kaiminani Drive — we pass through the state Department of Agriculture’s Keahole Agricultural Park where lei flowers, noni, turf grass and landscape plants crowd the ag lots.

All around the ag park are stark plains filled with fountain grasses and scrub, lands that belong to the state and to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

Next we pass the road to the new Hawaii Community College at Palamanui and then we travel on to the midslope subdivisions of Kalaoa, where many of us who call West Hawaii home are domiciled.

As I consider the proximity of all these lands and facilities, it has become increasingly difficult for me to understand why they don’t seem to be working together to meet our common goals.

We have all come to recognize that the pandemic is forcing us to consider a new normal for Hawaii, one less dependent on tourists and outside goods and more dependent on ourselves and what we produce. It would seem that maximizing collaboration between diverse state agencies would lead us a lot closer to that goal.

For instance, why doesn’t a community college that is adjacent to an agricultural park offer any courses in landscape agriculture and engineering and provide hands-on experience in the park?

What about basic courses in the engineering of aquaculture water systems with hands-on experience (and awaiting jobs) in the adjacent ocean science and technology park?

Even a casual observer will note that water pipes run everywhere in both parks and that the farms and aquaculture facilities require competent, well-trained, on-the-ground employees to assure success.

As I ruminate about a synergy between the disparate state properties at Keahole, I’ve come to the conclusion that we may be missing some immense opportunities. Here are a few specific thoughts:

1) All 34 of the Keahole Agricultural Park’s 5-acre lots are currently under lease and have been since the mid-1980s. Yet the 100-plus acres of state-owned land immediately mauka of the ag park remain undeveloped and unproductive.

Adding that adjacent acreage to the ag park, which is currently 179 acres, would substantially expand the size of the park. More land would mean greater productivity and economic impact. In addition, the 34 existing lots allow farm dwellings and if the expanded area did the same, it would contribute to easing the desperate need for more reasonably priced housing in West Hawaii.

The existing Keahole Agricultural Park sits just mauka of the Queen Kaahumanu Highway. It is surrounded by lands that could be opened up for farming and housing. Brian E. Powers/

2) The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands owns 600 acres in the area. There is a pair of 100-acre tracts of DHHL land adjacent to and immediately south of the Keahole ag park: One tract is currently zoned for agriculture, the other for commercial use. Less than a mile mauka sit another 400 acres of DHHL land zoned for residential development.

Developing the infrastructure for an expanded ag park would make all of these adjacent DHHL lands even more attractive for development and could contribute to creating a significant number of homes for Hawaiians on Hawaii Island.

3) Just makai is NELHA. The possibility of synergy between the ag park and NELHA seems obvious, yet to date there has been no apparent cross-pollination.

Here’s a suggestion: NELHA produces high-nutrient waste products from fish, shellfish and algae production. Those waste products could be mixed with West Hawaii’s abundant green waste, producing a nitrogen-rich and valuable compost for our ag park farmers, who often struggle to make the lava bloom.

NELHA has abundant open space in one of the most sunlight-rich locations in the state and is a natural spot to produce highly productive compost. Seems obvious? Well, under the current system Hawaii County hauls its west side green waste 90 miles across the island to Hilo to process it.

4) About 5 miles south of the Keahole Ag Park and NELHA, on state land, is Hawaii County’s Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant, which for decades has been disposing of approximately 1.8 million gallons a day of barely treated sewage into an open sump just a little more than half a mile from the ocean.

The treatment plant is currently slated to be upgraded so that our wastewater can be reused after being treated to R-1 standards.

Every day Hawaii County’s Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant discharges nearly 2 million gallons of barely treated sewage into a nearby sump; the effluent has degraded surrounding ocean waters, including those at Honokohau Harbor (seen at upper right). Brian E. Powers/

That valuable resource could irrigate the Keahole Agricultural Park, NELHA and resorts and homes between the two locations, reducing irrigation costs and the depletion of our precious freshwater aquifer.

The Ane Keohokalole Highway is the ideal mid-slope pathway for a reclaimed water transmission line. The unfinished piece of that highway connecting to the ag park is currently “shovel ready,” making it the perfect time to commit to including a recycled water line into the highway planning, funding and construction process.

Dumping 1.8 million gallons of sewage in the open sump at Kealakehe every day has had a severely deleterious impact on the ocean.

The sewage quickly makes its way from the sump into the groundwater and is transported into Honokohau Harbor and through the adjacent porous shorelines. As a result of our incompetence and neglect, the state Department of Health has downgraded those nearshore waters to “impaired.” Yet they are essential to one of the most vibrant, economically valuable and productive marine ecosystems in the Pacific.

5) The Department of Transportation’s Keahole Airport has its own wastewater treatment plant, which is already producing recycled water to irrigate airport facilities. It seems to have more R-1 water than it can use.

Yet despite the fact that the airport is literally right across the Queen Kaahumanu Highway from the ag park, there seems to be no interest in connecting the neighboring state facilities and getting that extra water to the ag park.

6) Some of the lands I’ve mentioned (at NELHA and around the wastewater treatment plant) are Hawaii Opportunity Zones and benefit from federal Opportunity Zone tax reinvestment options, meaning opportunities I’ve suggested here could be financed by private investors and some of the related infrastructure development financing could come from federal sources as well.

As I drive through this landscape day after day, I am reminded of the famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

The state agencies that need to talk to each other to realize these opportunities include the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the governor’s office and the Legislature.

Add in the Hawaii County agencies: the mayor’s office, the County Council and various county agencies.

Add too a little help from our friends in Washington.

And therein lies the problem. These diverse bodies, offices and agencies are generally insular and too often miss, and even dismiss, the big picture solutions that regular communication amongst them might engender.

Given all the parties involved, it will take foresight, coordination, planning and perseverance to take advantage of these necessarily collaborative opportunities.

The big picture: NELHA in the foreground gives way to the airport, then to the ag park, then to the houses at Kalaoa and finally to the upper slopes and summit of Hualalai. Brian E. Powers/

But if we just leave things the way they are:

— every day 1.8 million gallons of potential irrigation water will continue to be dumped in a hole in the ground for the lack of transmission infrastructure;

— the Keahole ag park will remain a relatively minor player in our economy;

— farmers will continue to be frustrated by the lack of available land, the high cost of irrigation and the inability to live where they farm;

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— DHHL beneficiaries will continue to be denied access to their lands and their rights;

— a substantial amount of state land will continue to remain unproductive;

— and state agencies that should be working together will continue to miss the many opportunities to collaborate for the good of the people of Hawaii.

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About the Author

Rick Gaffney

Rick Gaffney is a lifetime resident of Hawaii, an environmentalist and a fisherman.

Latest Comments (0)

This is a great article that I hope will be read and taken seriously by some of our newly elected government officials as well as the Hawaiian Resource Development corporation (if one exists).  This pandemic and it’s ensuing economic damage should point us all to looking around to make do with what we have and doing good things with our plentiful resources.  We are on the right track and this article is spot on with solid suggestions for a concerted unified state of Hawaii resource development plan and actions.  I hope that you, Rick, can also be involved in moving this process forward!

Patw · 2 years ago

Aloha Rick,So much potential for the Big Island - ag, tech and non-fossil fuel.  All those opportunities beside tourism.   So many synergy opportunities. The addition of TMT -- run by respectful scientists -- to the mix will open many tech opportunities.    Dan

DanlCSmith · 2 years ago

A casino would look really good out on all that pahoehoe.

Crackseed · 2 years ago

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