Honolulu’s biggest water users – including government agencies, hotels, condos, schools and hospitals – are under pressure to reduce their consumption as the island grapples with life without three of its former wells. 

Since March, the entire island has been under an advisory from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply to use 10% less water. The utility shuttered the Halawa Shaft, a major water source, and two other wells due to fears that fuel contamination in the Navy’s water supply from the Red Hill storage facility might spread. 

The lack of rainfall this year combined with the yearslong timeline to establish new wells means that the island’s water demands are out of sync with its supply.

With no significant changes to water usage in the first few weeks of the advisory, the water utility is engaging in a public education campaign around conservation, including outreach to its top customers, BWS spokeswoman Kathleen Elliot-Pahinui said.

Waikiki Beach. Sheraton hotel, Hilton, The Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the Moana Surfrider Hotels and more.
The Honolulu Board of Water Supply has asked customers to use 10% less water due to fears of shortages. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The utility has warned that what is now a request for voluntary conservation may become mandatory if its customers don’t take more steps to reduce their water usage.

“It’s going to take all of us working together,” Elliott-Pahinui said.  

According to BWS data from 2021, the entities that used the most water in metropolitan Honolulu and the surrounding area include state and city agencies, universities, Waikiki hotels, condos and apartments, hospitals and schools. The Honolulu Department of Environmental Services, for example, used more than 164 million gallons of water last year.

Businesses like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hawaiian Cement and United Laundry Services were on the list. And the Hawaii Kai Golf Course used over 94 million gallons of BWS water last year.

The list also included a handful of individuals. Kiana Gentry’s Manoa home used over 1.3 million gallons of water last year. She said Tuesday that she would make an effort to bring down her usage.

“I’ll speak to my landscaper about it because he sets all the controls,” she said. 

Magazine publisher and real estate investor Duane Kurisu’s single family residence was another top user, with 1.6 million gallons used last year, according to BWS. He did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Top Users Say They’re Trying To Reduce

Waterfall located at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa.
Waikiki hotels are some of the region’s biggest water users, according to Honolulu Board of Water Supply data. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The hotel industry says it’s doing what it can to help.

Conservation has been “a part of hotel ideology for decades,” according to a joint statement from Hawaii Hotel Alliance President Jerry Gibson and Kekoa McClellan, spokesperson for the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

“Some of the critical water saving measures include state-of-the-art filtration systems that enable the prolonged reuse of water in pools, smart irrigation systems that respond to weather conditions, low-flow toilets and fixtures, and staff and guest education programs promoting water conservation,” they said.

“The industry remains hopeful that through ongoing, enterprise-wide conservation efforts shared by all of us, forced reductions from the Board of Water Supply can be avoided,” they added.

Punahou School said in a statement that since March, it has significantly reduced its campus irrigation. It asked employees to be mindful of their water usage and to watch out for on-campus leaks and plumbing issues.

The University of Hawaii has taken several steps to curb its usage as well, spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said.

After BWS called for the voluntary reduction in water consumption, UH Manoa immediately stopped watering large lawn areas, reduced irrigation, put new planting on hold, postponed fire protection system testing that discharged water, and informed maintenance staff to immediately report leaking fixtures, Meisenzahl said.

Local community colleges, which are part of the UH system, met with BWS officials and committed to reducing water use for landscaping and irrigation by 25%, Meisenzahl said.

University of Hawaii at Manoa campus with a view of the entrance to Hawaii Hall.
UH Manoa has reduced irrigation, among other efforts. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Among condo and community associations, conservation efforts are mixed, according to Raelene Tenno, the education chairperson of the Hawaii Council on Community Associations. It varies based on the resident manager of the complex, she said. 

“Some are pretty proactive. They’re starting to think about what they’re going to do, so they may slowly say: We’re not going to water the lawn every day. We might be doing it every other day,” she said. “I know (for) some boards that they don’t care. They want their lawn green.” 

Community associations that are typically strict about lawn care standards may need to relax their rules given the circumstances, she said.  

The Hawaii Council of Community Associations is going to discuss the issue at an upcoming meeting, Tenno said, and the group’s president, Jane Sugimura, said the group would consider putting notices on its website to encourage people to conserve.  

The city’s Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant is a big user of potable water, according to the Department of Environmental Services. It is used to remove impurities from wastewater that could have a negative impact on public health and the environment, department spokesman Markus Owens said in an email. 

The city is looking into possible ways to reduce potable water usage, but the potential is somewhat limited, according to Owens. 

The plant’s effluent isn’t suitable for reuse, he said, and most of the treatment plant’s operations are required to remain in service continuously every day. However, upgrades in the works will produce a “high-quality secondary effluent” to supplant some of the plant’s potable water usage.

The Halawa Correctional Facility, another top water user, already uses water-efficient showerheads, toilets and faucets, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Hawaiian Cement currently uses a lot of non-potable water, according to engineer Dane Wurlitzer, but the company is aiming to reduce its reliance on the potable sources it does use.

“We’re confident we can help out and reduce our consumption by 10%, or possibly more,” he said.

Other high-use water customers mentioned above did not respond to requests for comment about the water conservation advisory.

Mandatory Water Limits Possible

If usage doesn’t decline enough, the Board of Water Supply warned it can institute mandatory water restrictions that could impact daily life and construction. Currently, the utility is relying on wells farther away from the contamination, but it is already seeing evidence that the wells are being pumped too much and are becoming salty.  

At this point, it’s too early to say whether mandatory limits will be imposed, Elliott-Pahinui said. In the meantime, the utility is working to educate the public about ways to reduce usage. 

Illustration of Oahu water sources Board of Water Supply
BWS can’t pump its remaining wells too hard, otherwise they’ll start to hit undrinkable saltwater. Honolulu Board of Water Supply

BWS already has met with several visitor industry organizations to discuss conservation and is planning to meet with representatives from condo communities to discuss landscaping and other demands on water resources, according to Elliott-Pahinui. The response has been very positive, she said. 

“There is a sense of shared responsibility from all sectors of the government and business community,” she said. 

Another focus is restaurants, Elliott-Pahinui said. The water utility recently launched a rebate program for restaurants whose owners want to buy water-efficient dishwashers and icemakers, she said. And BWS is willing to visit island restaurants to help owners identify ways to save water, she said. 

For its part, the military says it has reduced its water consumption. The Navy has cut back on irrigation by half and has installed water-saving showerheads in its properties, a Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command representative told Hawaii Public Radio. 

The city government has taken steps to reduce potable water use at municipal golf courses, according to the mayor’s office. 

On a residential level, households are being encouraged to fix leaks, reduce watering of lawns, take shorter showers and install water-efficient fixtures. BWS rebates are also available for households. 

In general, residents should be on the lookout for water waste, Elliott-Pahinui said. Those complaints – which include broken pipes and malfunctioning sprinklers – have quadrupled recently, and BWS applauds that, she said. 

“People are really paying attention,” she said. “I think all of these little efforts will add up and help us get there.” 

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