Who will control West Hawaii’s water? Water Board, Park Service, at odds


Hawaii Island’s water supply is their baby, and they don’t want the federal or state government taking over its care, members of the county Water Board said Tuesday.

In a unanimous vote, the Water Board agreed to draft a letter opposing a move by the National Park Service asking the state Commission on Water Resource Management to give the area served by the Keauhou Aquifer a state water management area designation.

The designation would require state permission for projects to draw water from an area including the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park and all of West Hawaii from Makalawena to Kealakekua.

The Park Service filed the petition with the Water Commission last fall. The commission postponed action until December in order to research the matter. County water officials hope to send a letter to the commission in time for its May 21 meeting.

County water officials worry that the designation would require the county not only to apply for new water permits, but also to reapply for the existing permits, a move that could leave existing users fighting for their previously permitted share. In addition, the growing West Hawaii region is currently planning a new community college, a new judiciary complex, a new park and other projects that would need to tap into the aquifer.

“Like a responsible guardian, we protect the Keauhou Aquifer like a parent to our child,” said Department of Water Supply spokeswoman Kanani Aton, noting that the county charter requires the government to hold all public natural and cultural resources in trust for the people. “Removing the public trust resources from the county is not in the interest of the public trust, our child.”

Officials said the county currently collaborates with the state and community to be good stewards of the resource.

Nor is the Keauhou Aquifer in jeopardy, they added. Currently, the permitted users draw 32 percent of sustainable yield, defined as the maximum continuous rate of pumping from an aquifer that will not impair the utility of the water or the rate at which it is withdrawn. Under current growth projections, that would increase to 18.6 million gallons per day, or 48 percent by 2025, water officials say.

The Park Service disagrees with that assessment.

“The DWS lacks total control of pumping in the aquifer — it is now pumping about 85 percent of the groundwater withdrawn and controls around 25 percent of the permitted wells,” said Superintendent Tammy Ann Duchesne in testimony read to the board by consultant Jonathan Likeke Scheuer. “New projects, if developed as private water systems, would reduce these percentages and be in direct competition with the DWS. The DWS and your board cannot control groundwater across the aquifer, so there are threats to water you cannot address.”

The Park Service sees a trend of declining recharge to and increasing withdrawals from the aquifer. Updated data has been hard to come by for both sides, and is generally refuted by the opposing party.

“We believe the ‘precautionary principle’ dictates that prudent measures be taken today to protect the county’s public trust resources for current and future generations,” Duchesne added.

Peter Young, former chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources who is now owner and president of consulting firm Hookuleana LLC, has been one of the loudest opponents of the designation. Young represents the Queen Liliuokalani Trust and other large landowners.

Young told the Water Board to look at Maui, which was designated a water resource area in 2003 after a 20-year battle. Two of the former water permit holders are still embroiled in contested case hearings over getting their existing permits back, Young said.

“This is a big deal. It should be taken seriously,” Young said. “A federal agency wants a state agency to take water control over from a county agency.”