Liquid Assets

April, 2003

In parts of West Maui, it seems like the rain will never stop. As much as 355 inches fall a year, the second highest rainfall level in the state. So to the casual observer, it comes as a shock that Maui is on the verge of a water crisis. The Iao Aquifer, on the slopes above Wailuku, provides nearly 17 million gallons a day (mgd), approximately three quarters of Maui’s water needs. The U.S. Geological Service today monitors the aquifer, while officials and community activists mull over designating the aquifer as a state groundwater management area. Maui, however, is not the only island with a water-supply problem. Farmers and land developers on Oahu continue to debate over the Waiahole Ditch, an irrigation system that diverts water from Windward to Leeward. And in scarcely populated areas of the Big Island, some residents receive water by way of rain catchments. Water today has become a hot topic, a soon-to-deplete resource, akin to petroleum. So much so, that the United Nations predicts that severe water shortages will affect 2.7 billion people worldwide by the year 2025. Hawaii’s researchers and government leaders know that Hawaii will be part of the problem. That is why they are creating new technology and new conservation methods. Hawaii Businessexplores these issues in the following pages.

Water use on Oahu has fallen dramatically over the past few years, due to the closing of sugar plantations in the 1990s. Prior to the closures, the sugar industry consumed almost 600 mgd of surface water and about 200 mgd of ground water. Sugar plantations today use less than one-third of that amount.

With future developments and anticipated population growth, however, Oahu is expected to reach its water capacity by the year 2020, pumping nearly 98 percent of its available water supply. “Water demand will start to rise,” says Barry Usagawa, principal executive for water resources for the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. “We are approaching the limits of our resources in some parts of the state.”

A natural process that pushes water molecules through a membrane, from a lower-salt concentration to a higher-salt concentration.

Surprisingly, the board today still pumps the same amount of water (157 mgd) as it did 13 years ago. The reasons: a government-mandated, low-flush initiative; statewide water-conservation efforts, and, of course, the closing of sugar plantations.

The State Water Code, established by the Hawaii State Legislature in 1987, requires each Hawaii county to allocate its own ground water resource. Any county that pumps at 90 percent of permitted sustainable yield would have to be managed by the State Water Commission and Resource Management, by way of a permitting process (Oahu and Molokai both fall under this category).

William Tam, former deputy attorney general, helped to write the water code. He says Hawaii’s water policy is on a collision course. “Essentially, we have a limited supply and a growing demand, and it is starting to cross,” says Tam, a veteran environmental law attorney.

But some water experts do not agree. “[Supply and demand] are never going to cross,” Usagawa says. “We are always going to have water. It just depends on how much you want to pay for it.”

James Moncur, an economist, has a different take. He says water should be treated as a commodity. “There will be increasing contention over who gets to use the water,” predicts Moncur, director of the Water Resources Research Council at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He and Tam both agree that water is an under-priced resource that discourages conservation efforts.

To encourage conservation, however, the pricing structure would need to be determined by the water board. Says Tam, “Funds will need to be spent to protect watershed resources, so that we actually capture more water than allow it to run off. It will also be better for the land.”

Reverse Osmosis
A process that pushes water molecules through a membrane, from a higher-salt concentration to a lower-salt concentration. This happens when a higher-than-normal water pressure (roughly 1,000 pounds per square inch) pushes against the higher-salt concentration. Tap-water pressure is only between 40 and 80 pounds per square inch.

Peter Young is the newly appointed director of the Department of Land & Natural Resources. He also is chairman of the Commission on Water Resource Management, which is an attachment of the land and resources department. His department protects, regulates and manages Hawaii’s natural assets, including water. In essence, he is the state’s water man, perhaps the state’s third most important role, behind the governor and the attorney general.

“Unfortunately, society today doesn’t place the appropriate value on water that it should – a barrel of oil is worth more than a barrel of water to some,” Young says. “We need to step back a little bit and learn from the people of the past and the value they put on water. Hopefully, we will stop abusing water.”

As a former small business owner, Young is sensitive to that hand-to-mouth existence. He also is a nonvoting member of the Hawaii Tourism Authority and says he would like to launch a water-conservation marketing initiative with Hawaii hotels and restaurants. The Mauna Lani Resort on the Big Island already has it’s own water pumping system. The resort’s unique wastewater treatment system creates a wetland area. The wetland, in turn, attracts migratory birds, while recharging and filtering underground water.

Water Desalination
A natural or engineered process that removes minerals, such as salt, from brakish water and seawater. The result: fresh water. The Honolulu Board of Water Supply plans to build a 5-million-gallon seawater desalination plant on 20 acres of Barbers Point land by the year 2005.

Water conservation, however, should be a collaborative effort by all parties, and not just the visitor industry. New buildings, for example, should be designed with water conservation in mind. “The initial cost [of water conservation] is probably greater,” Young says. “The long-term benefits outweigh the initial cost. It’s a long-term investment. Business needs to look long-term.”

Indeed, all parties – public and private – need to look at the long term. The Honolulu water board has announced a new focus and new business plan. It comes at a time when waterworks commissions around the world are hiring private companies to manage their operations. With the board’s new strategic plan, its directors hope to provide world-class water services and develop products, using state-of-the-art technology. The board also has proposed a $2.5 million feasibility study for an Ocean Thermal Energy Converter (OTEC) deep-water ocean facility in Kalaeloa. The technology will develop new products in the areas of: electricity, renewable hydrogen, freshwater, irrigation water, aquaculture, agriculture, recreation and air conditioning.

Also, the Water Commission has identified the following statewide needs:

• A plan that includes water-conservation efforts by municipal, commercial and agriculture sectors.

• A court-mandated assessment of stream-flow characteristics and standards. There is no clear data on the impact of streams on drinking water supplies and native plants and animals. Of the 376 streams statewide identified by the water commission, only 43 have reliable data.

• A more detailed, drought-emergency action plan for the state of Hawaii. Some areas of the state are affected by a major drought every 2.5 years.

• Comprehensive data for ground-water and surface-water resources.

• Land-use plans that better reflect the existing and future availability of water.

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David K. Choo