A $3.2 million federal grant is funding the center.

Organizations working to protect Hawaii’s fresh water resources can tap a new center established to help secure federal funding for water initiatives and job training. 

The Hawaii Community Foundation’s Hawaiian Islands Environmental Finance Center won’t be providing grants, said Dana Okano, the center’s director. Instead, it will provide technical assistance and support to organizations trying to get federal money available for water projects. 

Waipio Valley lo'i or taro patch.
Water is vital for cultural and traditional Hawaiian practices such a growing kalo, or taro. A new initiative will provide assistance to organizations seeking federal grants to work on water initiatives. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“There’s lots of hoops when applying for federal dollars,” Okano said. The center wants to make that process easier for people to navigate.

To finance the operation, the Hawaii Community Foundation landed a $3.2 million dollar grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It’s one of 29 such centers established with money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, which President Joe Biden helped push through Congress in 2021. 

The mission of the centers is to provide “technical assistance to local governments, states, Tribes, Territories, and non-governmental organizations to protect public health, safeguard the environment, and advance environmental justice.”

Other recipients include the University of Maine System, Syracuse University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The infrastructure bill includes some $55 billion for investments in drinking water, wastewater, water reuse, conveyance and water storage infrastructure.  

“In Hawai‘i, water is an invaluable resource, essential for cultural and traditional practices and to assure we have thriving healthy ecosystems from mauka to makai,” Micah Kāne, Hawaii Community Foundation’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. “We also need water for our local families to prosper, which requires affordable housing infrastructure so people can stay in Hawai‘i —and a regenerative water system to support that need.”

Project Includes Job Training

The center also aims to help build Hawaii’s water management workforce, first by partnering with the University of Hawaii Economic Resource Organization and the University of Hawaii Water Resources Research Center to assess gaps in the workforce and develop models for career pathways in the water sector. 

In addition, a new Hawaii Water Workforce Fellowship Program will offer up to 10 fellows each year the opportunity to gain experience by working full time within local government agencies and various water-related organizations. 

The center’s launch aligns with ongoing discussions among government officials about needed water infrastructure improvements following the jet fuel leaks at the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility on Oahu. The Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui also underscored the need for healthy water systems.

Since 2013, the community foundation’s Hawaii Freshwater Initiative has been working to increase the state’s freshwater capacity through conservation, recharging aquifers and reusing wastewater. The Hawaiian Islands Environmental Finance Center could greatly expand those efforts.

Among those that have already received technical support from the center is the Mauna Kea Watershed Alliance, which is working “to protect and enhance watershed ecosystems, biodiversity and resources through responsible management while promoting economic sustainability and providing recreational, subsistence, educational and research opportunities.”

Partners include the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Kamehameha Schools, Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge and Parker Ranch. 

Cheyenne Hiapo Perry, coordinator of the Mauna Kea Watershed Alliance, said the center’s help was vital in enabling the alliance to land a federal grant during the center’s preliminary launch last year. 

“The team guided us through the grant application process, providing assistance with application review and editing, and helping us craft a thorough and comprehensive project narrative that captured the essence of what’s happening on Mauna Kea, strengthening the overall grant application,” Perry said in a statement.

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