The Hawaii State Capitol reflecting pools – well known equally for their uniqueness among U.S. Capitol buildings as well as their propensity for leaking – could one day be covered with glass instead of water.

Water in the pools leaked into Capitol offices several years ago, and replacing the water with an alternative could save the state money in the long run.

That’s one goal for a renovation project set to get underway in May after this year’s legislative session ends. The effort to repair waterproof membranes beneath the pools is expected to cost about $33.5 million.

State Comptroller Keith Regan told a panel of state lawmakers Thursday that funding will be used to repair the Ewa side pool, then “to find some sort of alternative to what was in the pool before.”

“Brackish water created algae,” Regan said. “It was bad, it was really bad.”

The Hawaii State Capitol pool has been empty for nearly a year. Rain water typically floods the area.
The state is looking for alternatives to water to fill pools surrounding the State Capitol. Cassie Ordonio/Civil Beat/2023

In a phone interview Friday, Regan said DAGS is working with the State Historic Preservation Division to determine an appropriate alternative to water in the pools. The division needs to be involved because the Capitol building is considered a historic landmark.

One alternative is to cover the pools with glass that simulates the look of water. That’s the approach the state took with another pool at the Hawaii State Art Museum. Any alternatives would need to be approved by the State Historic Preservation Division, but Regan said he is “pretty confident we will achieve what is desired.”

Covering the pools with glass or rocks could save the state water, and headaches that could come from filling the pools up again.

“Inevitably, if you fill the pools up again, the waterproof membrane will deteriorate, and we’ll have the same issue we’re dealing with right now,” Regan said. “That’s going to cost a lot of money to fix. What we’re looking at are ways to be environmentally conscious. We don’t want to put potable water in pools and have to constantly refill them.”

Reducing water use in Honolulu became a priority last year after a fuel leak from the Navy’s Red Hill storage facility contaminated the water supply for about 93,000 people living near Pearl Harbor as well as concerns about drought conditions.

Internally, DAGS also has discussed turning the pools into spaces for public use. Regan said one idea involved hosting hula events there with the rim of the pools serving as a stage. An audience could sit on the Capitol’s expansive lawn.

The state drained water from the pools more than a year ago, then set up barriers at a cost of about $100,000 to prevent people from falling in, which would create a liability issue for the state, Regan said.

One phase of work, budgeted at about $4 million, involves cleaning and repairing the Diamond Head pool. The $33.5 million project will cover work on the Ewa side, as well as projects to replace a waterproof membrane that lies underneath the concrete in the pools. The money would also be used to find alternatives to water.

DAGS’ budget testimony describes the current state of the pools as “unsightly” and “malodorous.” Previous attempts to stop leakage in the Capitol basement offices and parking lots with epoxy did little to stop corrosion, according to the testimony.

The plan is to restart work on the pools in May to avoid disrupting the Legislature, which convenes on Wednesday, Regan said.

House Finance Committee Chairman Kyle Yamashita said it’s important to consider whether delaying the project until May could add any costs. Lawmakers declined to fund the project two years ago when the projected cost was $30 million.

“If we are putting off our pool project because we don’t want to be disturbed, we need to think about that also. Are we adding costs?” Yamashita said Thursday during the hearing.

Legislators will weigh DAGS budget request for the repairs against the state administration’s other funding priorities and their own. The current capital improvements budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is about $2.1 billion.

Money for the Capitol pool renovation work would become available in July if approved by lawmakers.

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