Water is our most precious Public Trust resource, yet reports of water quality breaches, degradation and increased salinity in West Hawaii show our aquifer is imperiled.
At presentations regarding the national park’s petition to designate the Keauhou aquifer for its — and our — protection, Peter Young, consultant for Stanford Carr’s 5,000 home and commercial development mauka of the Kaloko-Honokohau National Park, has raised opposition to the designation. Mr. Young says to look no further than the Iao aquifer on Maui to see the horrifying affects of designation. Hearing this, I asked what permit(s) were hanging up water permitting there. Young didn’t know exact details, but said I could research it myself. What we found is that Kona residents should look at Maui, but not for the reasons he claimed.
The chief executive officer of Lanihau Properties, a company with major developments planned for West Hawaii, has suggested that based on what happened on Maui, there would be no homes constructed in Kona on vacant lots until 2025. Another hair-raising assertion — if it was true.
What did happen on Maui is that construction activity increased after the Iao aquifer was designated in 2004. According to UHERO, the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii, county building permits increased by 85.2 percent in 2005, and another 17.8 percent in 2006. The data is not broken down by aquifer, but a majority of people and economic activity on that island are in places served by Iao including Wailuku, Kahului, Paia, Kihei, Makena and Wailea. Post-2006 there was a dip in construction, but was it because of water regulation? Not according to First Hawaiian Bank’s 2007-08 Maui economic forecast. It shows extensive detail about the slowdown, but the word “water” doesn’t appear even once. See fhb.com/en/assets/File/Marketing/EconForecastMaui07.pdf.
The Iao story is complex, but what’s clear is that business and county bureaucratic interests fought aquifer designation until the situation became dire. No need to worry, they said. The county was taking care of everything. In a battery of recent presentations given and sponsored by major West Hawaii development players, this has become a familiar refrain.
As far back as 1986, the state of Hawaii recognized threats to Iao, so it tried to create protective regulation. Unsurprisingly (but disappointingly, since we all share and depend upon clean, abundant water), business and development interests successfully argued against it.
But defeating regulation didn’t make Maui’s water problems go away. One of the big issues that Maui County faced was that it had signed an agreement to give away water it didn’t have. The Seibu Corp. of Japan (Makena Resort), Wailea Development Co., C. Brewer and A&B Properties Inc. apparently convinced the county to give away Iao’s water for new development in the dry areas of Kihei, Makena and Wailea. According to the Honolulu Advertiser, these developers told the county the “Iao Aquifer could yield 36 million gallons of water per day, with the agreement calling for the partnership to receive 19 million gallons a day as their share for building the wells and transmission lines.”
When the U.S. Geological Survey (public scientists who report on peer-reviewed scientific research) looked into it, its findings were clear. Its data indicated safe yield of the aquifer was actually 19 million gallons a day. The county had promised to give it all away to new developers, which meant that regular residents and customers could end up with nothing.
Nonetheless, Maui County continued to oppose designation. In 2002, a Maui Water department spokesperson testified to the Water Commission about how “polarizing” designation was and that’s why it should be opposed. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, Maui developers promised — just as Hawaii Island’s developers are doing now — that the Water Department could keep the island’s water well-managed and protected on its own.
Iao was finally designated when Maui County was pumping more than 95 percent of the yield and salt was rising dangerously. Only then did the county begin a voluntary water conservation program. It had spent all its energy fighting designation instead of managing the resource, pushing conservation, and planning for the future.
In Kona, a coalition of major developers, the mayor and county water department are fighting aquifer designation. They talk about how, based on the advice of hydrologists who work for private developers, there’s plenty of water. They decry how “polarizing” designation is. They say how great the Department of Water Supply is in managing water.
Meanwhile, Hawaii County’s DWS manager and planning director have been asked by the County Council how many private agreements to deliver water for developers exist and how much water has been promised. Though this question has been asked repeatedly, no answer has been forthcoming. In the meantime, DWS could be doing leak detection, xeriscaping, installing low-flow fixtures or reusing water — things that would reduce demand and increase supply.
DWS says it will stop issuing water meters if the aquifer is designated. They give no legal, scientific or engineering basis for doing this. Even Maui County kept issuing meters in Iao after designation, when the aquifer was at 95 percent of capacity. If water meter permitting is denied by the county, it would seem more like a scare tactic and way to support developers who oppose designation for selfish purposes than an action taken in the public interest.
Is Kona similar to Iao? Yes, it is. On Maui, politics and narrow economic self-interests trumped good planning and regulation.
Should Kona take steps to protect our water supply? Many individuals, organizations and agencies, including the National Park Service, Kona Hawaiian Civic Club and other environmental, cultural and community advocates think we should. But, despite the danger to all of our region’s stakeholders, developers would rather we wait until it’s too late.
Janice Palma-Glennie of Kona is a representative for the Kona Kai Ea chapter of Surfrider Foundation.
Viewpoint articles are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily the opinion of West Hawaii Today.