photo by Dana Edmunds
“Enough is Plenty”
Yes, clearly a crunch is coming and conflicts over water use will multiply. The strong desire to restore Hawai‘i streams, and the legal decisions supporting this change, combined with continued population growth and growth in the visitor industry, have many people involved in water management and allocation issues feeling the pressure. But is there a crisis?
On booming Maui, at least, there is: The gilded isle is now maxing out the critical ‘iao aquifer as the state reassesses its sustainable yield. Treated stream water from plantation-era ditch systems now accounts for about 28 percent of Maui’s water supply. How Maui County awards new water meters is becoming a political issue.
Barry Usagawa of the Honolulu BWS says diversifying the resource base is key. In 2000, BWS bought the state’s largest water recycling operation. Located next-door to a city-owned sewage plant in ‘Ewa, the facility produces 12 mgd of non-potable water for industrial and irrigation use. Next, he says, the city plans to build a water recycling plant to irrigate the 269-acre Central O‘ahu Regional Park.
Desalination? BWS has done some initial testing of a small, reverse-osmosis desalination plant (5 mgd), again in ‘Ewa. According to Usagawa, it costs about $3.50 per thousand gallons to de-salt seawater, versus 30 cents to pump the same amount out of the aquifer.
“I think you need to look at the larger picture,” he says. “Desalination is one of the supply options we’re looking at. It’s technically feasible—other places like Florida, California, the Middle East and Japan have it. We’re just waiting for the right time to do it.”
In other words, Hawai‘i doesn’t have a full-blown water crisis … yet. Municipal water prices are in line with other cities: Honolulu households pay $2.24 per thousand gallons for the first 13,000 gallons (showerheads use about 4 gallons per minute; the new low-flow toilets about 1.6 gallons per flush); Maui households pay $1.55; in desert-land San Diego, a household pays $2.
“There’s no crisis in Hawai‘i. In fact, we tend to waste water,” says Philip Moravcik, information specialist at the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Hawai‘i. “If people would conserve, it would go a lot further. But water is relatively cheap in Hawai‘i, so there’s not much incentive.”
Jim Moncur, director of the center and Moravcik’s boss, addresses this low-cost disincentive directly: “Water pricing and the state’s water laws are inefficient,” he says, “making transfers or reallocations expensive and difficult, and there’s no mechanism in place to allow the marketplace to influence use. We have to make decisions, and we have to measure those decisions by some metric like the dollar. Otherwise, the system is not rational—it’s just who can pound who the hardest.”
Kaeo Duarte is a hydrologist, raised in Kona and educated at Princeton and MIT. Just 33, he teaches at the University of Hawai‘i-Manoa campus and serves as water resources manager for Kamehameha Schools, the largest private landowner in the state. With 360,000 acres spread across all the islands, the school is the legacy of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last royal member in the Kamehameha line of kings, and its beneficiaries are Hawaiian children.
At the end of a long and technical interview during which Duarte talked about subterranean surprises in volcanic hydrology and of a new, post-plantation era in water management, I ask him what he would hope to see in a general-interest article about water in Hawai‘i.
“Well,” he answers, “we didn’t get into this dimension very much, but as a Hawaiian, I’d like readers to finish the article and no longer think about water as a commodity. You know, it’s become very much commodified, and, of course, there are reasons for it in this society, but in my na‘au [core being; literally, guts], I believe it’s not something to be bought and sold. It’s something that weaves through every part of people’s lives here in Hawai‘i, whether they know it or not.
“I hope readers understand both the quantity and quality aspects of it—its abundance and purity—and how that feeds into the culture and whole ways of life. The waters of a place—the hydrology, if you will, of it—dictate what kind of agriculture can happen there, what kind of songs are written, what kinds of hula are danced, what an area becomes famous for. For me, it’s the spiritual and cultural importance of water in Hawai‘i. How it’s used should always be a function of place, of ‘ohana, and not just the ‘ohana walking around on two legs, but also the ‘ohana in the streams and ‘ohana in the forests.
“It all comes down to pono, balance, and taking what you need, taking enough—and you know, enough is plenty.” HH