Red Hill Crisis Underscores Water Insecurity In Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Jacob Wiencek

Jacob Wiencek is a member of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board and concerned resident of Honolulu. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the neighborhood board or his employer.


Late last year a devastating water crisis hit Hawaii as thousands of gallons of fuel from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility leaked into the groundwater.

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Thousands of mostly military families were relocated out of housing and the crisis worsened military-community relations given the preceding years of intense debate about the environmental impact of the facility.

However, most disturbingly it revealed a fundamental weakness that impacts not just Honolulu but all of Hawaii: our near single source dependence on underground aquifers presents an enduring threat to the state’s water security.

The Red Hill crisis is not the only water crisis to face Hawaii in the recent past. Maui County had to issue a water conservation notice that inflamed an age-old debate about balancing water for residents and one of our primary economic pillars, tourism.

More broadly, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration holds that the entire state of Hawaii is either in abnormally dry conditions or at least moderate to severe drought.

Whether through a man-made crisis or climate change we are facing increasing pressure on our water resources — and that pressure will only intensify as Hawaii’s population continues to grow (we clocked a 7% growth rate from 2010-2020).

Look To Desalination

A necessary, and so far, missing part of our water resource management strategies must include desalination projects. Relying simply on rain replenished groundwater reservoirs is a recipe for disaster with the potent mix of population increase and climate change impacts on the water cycle.

Recent efforts to increase the agricultural development and food security needs of Hawaii will also run into steep trouble if we don’t expand the supply of available fresh water. Fortunately, our islands are literally surrounded by the solution, and worldwide it’s shown results.

Right now the American Southwest is living through a megadrought so dramatic, researchers fear the last megadrought this severe coincided with the disappearance and collapse of the Anasazi people.

Crucially however, our fellow Americans on the mainland have some of the very solutions our state needs, particularly San Diego. After a series of devastating droughts and water rights battles in the 1990’s, San Diego County worked to develop a water resources management solution.

Three months of abnormally dry weather at the start of 2022 left little water in Kalihiwai Reservoir on Kauai. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

In addition to a whole range of innovative and conservation focused programs, one of the crucial facets of their plan was the construction of the largest desalination plant in the country. The addition of new sources of water has mitigated the severe impacts of a once in a millennium drought.

Globally, other countries have demonstrated high levels of success by incorporating desalination into their water management plans.

Singapore is an exemplary example of water management, sourcing 10% of its water needs through desalination. The hot, parched country of Saudi Arabia is a leader in desalination, meeting its modern water security requirements through a variety of large projects, many of which are powered in part or in whole by renewable energy.

Israel, another water-challenged country, has invested heavily in desalination over the last 20 years and expects projects to support 80-90% of municipal and industrial water needs through desalination. Given the current and sustained investment, Israeli water solutions have become increasingly advanced, effective, and support an industry filling a critical global need.

State and local lawmakers must put desalination high on the agenda.

We feel the pressure of water insecurity now. The solutions will take time to develop, and an all-encompassing water management strategy does include conservation, infrastructure improvement, and reducing usage.

Our single dependence on groundwater reserves is a strategic risk we cannot let go unaddressed. The National Intelligence Council forecasted back in 2020 the impacts of increasing water insecurity:

“Countries that are unable to adequately address water challenges probably will face health and disease problems, growing inequality, poor economic growth, and a greater risk of internal stability.”

We are seeing that play out in real time. The Council on Strategic Risks analyzed last year that increasing water scarcity was driving conflict, particularly on the local level. While we shouldn’t expect domestic “water wars” we need to be cognizant of water supply and water demand.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how brittle our globalized world is, and a particular lack of resiliency for Hawaii. When it comes to water security, we must leave nothing to chance. State and local lawmakers must put desalination high on the agenda and act now to make the long-term investments necessary to support the stability and prosperity of all the Hawaiian islands.

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About the Author

Jacob Wiencek

Jacob Wiencek is a member of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board and concerned resident of Honolulu. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the neighborhood board or his employer.


Latest Comments (0)

Pilau is right- on - desalination is all of the negatives, & produces very-low quality water, compared to ours. Maybe BWS needs to consider increasing prices of water? Or, at least, shut down the co.'s shipping our water out-of-state??? One co. alone, last I saw, was sending (our) bottled water to over 2,400 mainland stores! And, they pay a residential rate! And- nobody is talking about that?!?

KamakiUlana · 2 months ago

Desalination might sound like an easy, quick solution to our water woes, but it is not. Desalination requires a tremendous amount of energy, much more so than simply drilling a well and running an electric pump to drain water from the aquifer. At a time when the state is already attempting to totally transition to renewable energy by 2045, desalination will pose an additional strain on our energy resources. Desalination is practical in Saudi Arabia because, as it is well known, Saudi Arabia has access to an enormous supply of cheap energy. Hawaii does not, at least not for now. Furthermore, the staggering amount of energy consumed by desalination will drive up water and electricity prices for locals who are already dealing with the state’s high cost of living. Then comes the problem of disposing the great quantities of salt produced by desalination, which will inevitably damage the fragile marine ecosystems surrounding the islands. Unless our aquifers are somehow totally ruined, it will never be practical to source our water from desalination. Smarter water use, conservation, and regulations should come first, including limits on tourism and luxury development.

pilau · 2 months ago

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