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Driving down Queen Kaahumanu Highway at 45 mph, residents and visitors may not realize how much water flows beneath the barren-looking lava fields, Fred Cachola told County Council members Tuesday morning.

But the water does flow, in subsurface rivers that reach the ocean through lava tubes and caves, and in small trickles that are seen as they cut through sand at the shoreline. Without that water, which National Park Service officials said flows at a rate of about 3 million gallons per day per mile of coastline within Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, the park doesn’t exist.

Park officials took council Agriculture, Water and Energy Sustainability Committee members to the park’s northern fish pond, bounded by an 800-foot-long rock wall, to illustrate the balance between fresh and salt water along the coastline. Then officials asked for the council’s support of the park’s request to designate the Keauhou Aquifer, which provides the groundwater for the park and all of West Hawaii from Makalawena to Kealakekua, as a Water Management Area. That designation would require the consideration of any potential impacts new development would have on cultural resources and Native Hawaiian practices, such as those that are perpetuated at Kaloko-Honokohau.

The committee took no action Tuesday.

“We saw this place as a cultural kipuka,” Cachola said, referring to the commission that recommended the National Park Service create Kaloko-Honokohau in the late 1970s. A kipuka, he added, is an area in the lava field that was spared by the molten flows, leaving behind plants and animals. The park is an area where cultural practices are maintained, he and park officials said.

The fish pond and its wall are evidence of Hawaiians’ ingenuity and industriousness, Cachola said. Work to restore the pond and wall began in 1998, and continues today with annual repairs following high winter surf and ongoing efforts to remove invasive plants.

In September, park officials filed the petition with the state’s Water Commission seeking the water management area designation. Much of Oahu has the designation, and the goal isn’t to stop development, park Superintendent Tammy Duchesne said, but to make sure water is being used responsibly.

Right now, park officials are waiting for water commissioners to decide whether to continue with even considering the application. If the commission moves ahead with the request, it will hold a public hearing in West Hawaii, as well as conduct scientific fact-finding about the aquifer.

All park officials needed from the council Tuesday was a measure of support for the designation process to continue.

“There’s nothing in the water code that says you have to wait for a crisis before designating,” National Park Service hydrologist Paula Cutillo said. “We are not saying there is not enough water for growth and to protect these resources.”

The designation does raise concerns for some Hawaii Island residents. Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi and Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter both expressed reservations about the designation. Onishi was particularly worried that the designation would negate water rights for projects that have not yet been developed, but do have other state and county approvals.

“The applicant needs to know for sure if they have the rights, if they are grandfathered in,” Onishi said.

Water Commission Resource Manager Roy Hardy said that depends. In some designated areas, projects with water rights were considered existing uses. But in the most recent area, in the Iao region of Maui, only projects actually drawing water were considered to be existing. Those projects with water entitlements that haven’t started construction would then have to reapply for water units, Hardy said.

Poindexter said she appreciated the National Park Service’s expertise and data, but wanted to be sure local knowledge wasn’t excluded when making water usage decisions.

The water commission has yet to decide whether to proceed with the petition for the management area. If it does, park service officials said, the commission will conduct formal fact-finding and hold a public hearing.