The U.S. Navy’s contamination of Honolulu’s primary drinking water source could trigger major impacts to the island’s economy and quality of life, including a potential moratorium on new construction, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply told Hawaii senators in a briefing on Monday. 

The entire island is already being advised to reduce its usage by 10%, but that voluntary restriction is likely just the beginning of the impacts of the crisis on the civilian population.

Developers have started receiving letters from the BWS stating that the water utility can’t promise water will be available for new buildings. BWS may also implement mandatory water limits for residential and commercial users as well as major rate hikes for customers who don’t reduce their usage, officials said on Monday. BWS could restrict flow or shut water off entirely for those who don’t comply.  

“The Red Hill situation has triggered this domino effect that is now impacting our economy,” BWS Chief Engineer Ernie Lau said in a recent interview. 

Excavators dig on the foundation at the future Honolulu Civil Beat offices located near Kokohead Avenue.
There could be a moratorium on new water meters for buildings under construction. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

On Monday, Lau told a joint hearing of the Health and Water and Land committees that the crisis could drive up the cost of construction on Oahu. The median price of a single-family home on the island is already over $1 million. 

“We know it is going to make projects more expensive, but in the meantime, if they want to proceed, we have to minimize the impact to the existing water system,” Lau told senators. 

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole said the possibilities are “alarming.”

The Board of Water Supply closed three of its wells last year after the Navy said that fuel from its Red Hill fuel facility had leaked into its drinking water supply in November. BWS and the military get their water from the same aquifer that stores water in the porous lava rock beneath the ground.

Shutting off those civilian wells – including the Halawa Shaft which provides 20% of the water supply for the region – was necessary to contain the petroleum contamination, Lau said. 

Watch the Board of Water Supply briefing below:

It’s unclear exactly where the contamination is and how far it may be traveling, according to Lau, and he doesn’t want to take the chance of contaminating the civilian water supply.

“Until we can be sure that that won’t happen, we can’t afford to take on that risk,” Lau said. 

“If it got into our water system, it could go anywhere from the Halawa area all the way out to Hawaii Kai, and we would not know where, and we would have the challenge of how to clean it up.” 

That leaves BWS to rely on other wells farther away from Halawa, but if the utility pumps those sources too hard, they will become too salty to drink. That’s why BWS asked water users earlier this month to reduce their usage. 

Halawa shaft BWS red hill impact
The Halawa shaft, now closed, provided water to 20% of the region from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai. Honolulu Board of Water Supply

The Board of Water Supply is actively pursuing the drilling of the new wells to replace what was lost, but establishing one typically takes five to seven years, according to Lau. 

In the meantime, further water reductions will be necessary, BWS officials said. 

Along with possibly limiting approvals of new development, BWS can increase water rates up to 20 times for users who exceed their allotment. 

In a critical water shortage scenario, BWS could require the closure of public swimming pools and ponds, mandate that water only be served in restaurants when requested by the customer and limit use of potable water for recreational purposes, including water parks. 

BWS could also implement mandatory restrictions on city agencies, including limiting irrigation of city parks, reducing non-essential fire department training and hydrant flushing and instituting the use of recycled water for non-potable uses. 

“These are the things we’re considering if we have to go that far,” Barry Usagawa, the administrator of the Board of Water Supply’s Water Resources Division, told senators. 

The construction industry is “deeply concerned,” said Nathaniel Kinney, the political and education director for the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters.  

Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau updates media and asked the metro Honolulu water customers to reduce 10% in preparation for a possible dry summer.
Board of Water Supply Manager and Chief Engineer Ernie Lau described the impacts the Navy crisis could have on the community and economy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“Construction has been propping up a significant portion of the middle class,” Kinney said.If you were to stop construction right now, that would be catastrophic.” 

Developers are planning to meet with Lau next week to discuss what can be done, Kinney said. 

Short of a moratorium, there are things developers can do to reduce their water usage on construction sites, including recycling water and rain catchment, Lau said. 

Sen. Bennette Misalucha asked Lau about the timeline to bring a new well online. Lau said he is seeking an emergency proclamation from the governor that would help expedite the process. However, generally speaking, he said there isn’t much flexibility. 

“I wish a new well could happen in a year, that we could just drill it today and a year from now, have that well in service,” Lau said. 

“But I would be deceiving people if I said that because that is not the case based on our experience over decades of drilling and developing new wells.” 

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