Park service seeks safe margins in water use


The National Park Service is stressing the importance of a “margin of safety” for its ecosystems, while acknowledging there is no evidence that current water pumping practices pose an immediate threat to the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park.

“We have no evidence that existing pumping has impacted the resource, but we’re concerned about future pumping,” said Paula Cutillo, a hydrologist with the NPS Water Resources Division.

In December, the state Commission on Water Resource Management will consider a petition by the park to designate the Keauhou aquifer a state water management area. The move is heavily opposed by the county, lawmakers up to the federal level, the West Hawaii business community and others who see it as another layer of bureaucracy that stands to curtail development by making water harder to obtain.

The park claims a management framework is needed to assure that future water use is weighed against the needs of the park’s fragile ecosystems in a way that is not a part of current checks and balances at the county level. Through the Water Commission’s public hearings process, the park and other concerned parties could weigh in on water use applications, park officials say.

A Park Service hydrologist, consultant, policy analyst and others made the case to about 100 people at a roundtable on Wednesday sponsored by the Hawaii Leeward Planning Conference. But the group appeared to leave some attendees unconvinced that the water should be placed under state oversight.

The aquifer’s current sustained yield of 38 million gallons a day was set in the 1990s, with the idea of leaving about half of the water in the wells, Cutillo said. But the limit was designed to ensure the quality of the water being pumped rather than to guarantee that enough water was escaping to replenish natural areas, she said.

“The national park is not sure that leaving half of the water in the ground is a safe enough margin,” Cutillo said.

The NPS petitioned for the designation last fall, saying that decreased groundwater from well pumping could damage the balance of salinity in its fish ponds, anchialine pools and shoreline area, threatening rare species, fish and cultural practices tied to those resources.

Wednesday, the park presented studies by the University of Hawaii and other entities backing up their claims that the park’s ecosystems are indeed sensitive to fluctuations in groundwater. The NPS also acknowledged that salinity is influenced by a number of natural and man-made factors, and that more study needs to be done to understand how much fresh water the park ecosystems actually need.

But the uncertainty is not a reason to delay action, said Peter Fahmy, a policy analyst with the NPS Water Rights Branch.

“Protection delayed is protection denied,” he said.

Current pumping is at 37 percent of that 38 million gallon limit. Opponents of the designation say that is well within the margin of safety.

“People feel they’ll have to spend a lot of money fighting a contested case with the NPS whenever they want water,” one audience member said. “Are you going to contest everyone’s use of water?”

Park Superintendent Tammy Duchesne assured roundtable attendees that the park isn’t interested in obstructing projects.

“The NPS wants a seat at the table in land-use planning and well placement when the data suggests there may be impacts to the park’s resources,” said Sallie Beavers, chief of resources for the park. “It’s not about protesting everything, it’s about encouraging sustainable decisions for the Kona area.”

Fahmy said the NPS believes “a reasonable determination can be made the resources the park has been entrusted to protect may be threatened if the commission does not act to provide a margin of safety.”

The NPS would have to consider the specifics of any particular water use application in deciding if it will contest the use, Fahmy said.

The park would encourage development of water sources outside the aquifer, such as the Saddle Road area and efforts such as water reuse and desalination, Fahmy said. The NPS would also be willing to discuss designating a smaller sub unit within the aquifer rather than putting the entire system under state control. But the Water Commission would have to decide if that protection was adequate, he said.

NPS consultant Jonathan Scheuer said that 2,700 new water use permits have been issued and consumption has increased 8 percent since a similar water management designation was put in place on Maui’s Iao aquifer in 2003. In water management areas on Oahu, use decreased 7 percent and 13,800 new meters were issued from 2001 to 2008, he said.

Questioned whether that decrease in water use might have been because of leak detection efforts, Scheuer said the City and County of Honolulu had implemented aggressive leak detection, increased rates and mandated low-flow toilets.

If the designation is approved, the Hawaii County Department of Water Supply would stop issuing new meters until the state has finished assessing current use and made it clear how much additional water can be used and what its requirements are, deputy manager Keith Okamoto confirmed.

“The only approach that we can see as fair is to stop issuance of permits,” he said.

Scheuer said if he was a real estate agent he would be asking the county DWS hard questions about why that freeze would be necessary.

DWS manager Quirino Antonio said the state Water Commission set the current sustainable yield for the aquifer.

“We are well within that sustainable yield and there are protections within the state water code that we are adhering to,” he said in an interview. “It’s not like we are going to degrade our water resources. My question would be, why is the national park looking for more protections?”