Issue 10.4: August / September 2007

Ka Wai Ola

story by Curt Sanborn

Photo by Greg Vaughn

He Mele no Kane

A query, a question
I pose the question to you
Where is the water of Kane?
It is there at the rising of the sun
Emerging at Ha‘eha‘e
There is the water of Kane.

I pose the question to you
Where is the water of Kane?
It is there at the setting of the sun
Where the cloudbanks gather on the sea
Rising up at Nihoa
At the base of Lehua island
There is the water of Kane.

I pose the question to you
Where is the water of Kane?
There in the mountain, the high ridges
There in the valley, the flowing stream
There is the water of Kane.

I pose the question to you
Where is the water of Kane?
There in the sea, in the wide ocean
In the thunderhead, in the rainbow
In the red rising mist, the blood rain
In the drifting sea mists
There is the water of Kane.

I pose the question to you
Where is the water of Kane?
The water of Kane is there above
In the dark cloud, the black cloud
In the dense, velvet-dark cloud
In the midnight-purple cloud of Kane, ah!
There is the water of Kane.

I pose the question to you
Where is the water of Kane?
Below, in the earth, the gushing spring
In the water set by Kane and Kanaloa
Water springing forth, water to drink
Water to empower, water to bring life
Let it thrive, indeed!

— from The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant,
translated by Puakea Nogelmeier



On a typical trade wind afternoon, about 10 million gallons of rainwater fall from mountain clouds to moisten the lush residential valley of Manoa, just inland of the sunny and dry Waikiki resort district. The misty cascades, blooming white in the glare of Honolulu’s otherwise sunny days, are canvases for the frequent rainbows that famously decorate the green valley’s wide opening.

Her thumb on the business end of a garden hose, a retired schoolteacher in Kane‘ohe feeds a spray of water to her side-yard stacks of potted orchids (10 gallons per minute). A realtor visiting from Seattle carefully edges his goatee, rinsing his multi-blade Mach3 under the hotel bathroom’s running faucet (2 gallons per minute). A broken sprinkler head in Kapi‘olani Park turns a swath of lawn into marsh (40 gallons per minute).

Punalu‘u stream on the windward side of O‘ahu is classified as a perennial stream, one that flows year-round. At the shore, it empties into teeming reef waters at an average rate of about 5,900 gallons per minute. There are 366 perennial streams listed in the state.

On O‘ahu’s dry leeward side, sparkling freshwater collected from 90-year-old tunnels bored into the rain-soaked Ko‘olau mountain mass flows through a 20-mile, gravity-fed ditch system to irrigate the golf courses, agriculture lands and burgeoning suburbs of the parched ‘Ewa plain (9,400 gallons per minute).

Hawaiian culture has a phrase for it: Ka wai ola, the waters of life. Before contact with the west, Hawaiian settlements were usually clustered along the big streams of the wet, windward sides of most islands, where elaborate irrigation systems were built to disperse the wealth and strict kapu regulated use.

The word wai means water or liquid, everything but seawater (kai). As a prefix it pervades the language; such is water’s importance. Compound the word and you have waiwai, wealth, property, riches. Kanawai (literally, “belonging to the waters”) translates as law, code or statute. As scholars Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert suggested in their definitive Hawaiian-language dictionary, the meaning of kanawai is “perhaps so called because many early laws pertained to water [wai] rights.”

The sweet rain falls. Some of it rushes out to sea while the rest percolates into the volcanic soil. The million-plus humans lucky enough to be here siphon off what they need at a rate of about 1.9 billion gallons per day.

Ka wai ola, indeed.

Hydrology 101

In 2002, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply published a terrific booklet called Water for Life: The History and Future of Water on O‘ahu. It’s a colorful, easy-to-read guide to everything you ever wanted to know about O‘ahu’s water—Hawaiian use, agricultural use, the history of extraction technologies, conservation. The first spread in the booklet is a multicolored, cross-sectional schematic that lays out the basic hydrology of O‘ahu and, by example, the other major Hawaiian islands: A volcanic mountain mass rises up out of a deep ocean to several thousand feet above sea level. Rendered as big arrows on the ocean’s surface, the prevailing northeast trade winds hit the island’s eroded windward peaks and rise to cooler altitudes where clouds form and rain drops into the mountain forests. Streams (aka surface water) rush back down the windward side to the sea, while leeward of the mountain ridge the clouds are wrung out and dryer, and perennial streams are few.

Inside the mountain, beneath the forest, the rainwater becomes groundwater, soaking the soils and percolating down through the porous volcanic layers. Just about at sea level, the water collects in a pillow-shaped basal aquifer (or “lens”) underlying the entire island. It’s been estimated that it can take twenty-five years for water to filter its way down to the aquifer, whose convex topside gently rises from sea level at the coasts upward toward the center of the island and whose bottom curves deep into the mountain’s submarine mass. A typical aquifer is thinnest and closest to the surface at its edges, close to the coasts, where it feeds springs and streams or seeps directly into the ocean. This is also where an aquifer is most vulnerable to brackishness caused by seawater intrusion.

Found throughout Hawai‘i, these natural reservoirs, floating atop secondary lenses of brackish and salt water, are the critical repositories for the Islands’ high-quality freshwater.

Within the mountain spine (or rift zone) is a second kind of subterranean storage system: Clustered arrays of dikes, or walls, formed by impermeable intrusions of volcanic basalt, trap some of the percolating water high in the mountain. When naturally breached by erosion, these “dike-impounded” waters feed springs, waterfalls and streams. Pierced and tapped by humans, they offer easy water—for a while.

In front of the handsome headquarters of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, a gleaming concrete fountain pumps a thick, glossy column of water a few feet into the air. Behind the fountain, incised on the stone back-splash: Uwe Ka Lani Ola Ka Honua (When the heavens weep, the Earth lives). The county agency pumps an average of 155 million gallons of water per day to over 160,000 residential and business customers on O‘ahu.

In a conference room, civil engineer Barry Usagawa, the highly regarded chief of the BWS water resources division, shuffles a colorful sheaf of papers: maps, graphs, charts. But first he wants to stress the changes at BWS.

“When I started working at the Board of Water Supply twenty-one years ago,” Usagawa says, “our sole mission was to provide drinking water to the people of O‘ahu for the lowest possible cost, period.

“The mission was so narrow—we didn’t really consider the other issues, like the impacts of diverting surface water and all the potential cultural and environmental uses of that water, the importance of the watershed itself, and how the forests are directly connected to the water we pump. We didn’t consider the impacts below our wells—seawater intrusion—or the positive effects of healthy streams on nearshore waters.”

In 1998, Usagawa says, the BWS revisited its entire mission, “expanded it, broadened it to a higher level.

“Yes, we still needed to provide drinking water, but we’ve also become cognizant of all the other uses of water and all the competing rights to it, so we broadened the mission into what you see here,” he says, pointing to the Water for Life booklet. Usagawa flips through his papers, variously explaining them. A map pinpoints BWS’ 192 artesian and deep wells, and six inclined shafts. Eighteen BWS mountain tunnels collect water from high-level dike impoundments. The collected water moves around the island in 2,100 miles of pipe measuring from less than an inch to three feet in diameter. Before distribution to customers, the island’s water is lifted into 169 hillside storage reservoirs. It is from them that water, pressurized by gravity, flows downhill to users. Depending on the aquifer from which it was pumped, the water is chemically treated or not. Charts compare state-mandated “sustainable yields” in various O‘ahu aquifers with BWS yields and permitted-use yields. Sustainable yield, Usagawa explains, is the extraction rate from an aquifer that roughly equals its recharge rate from rainfall and percolation from streams, irrigation and other sources.

A veteran bureaucrat with an empowered sense of mission, Usagawa is passionate about BWS’ proactive efforts to manage the mountain forest watersheds (he calls them “high recharge areas” or “big sponges”) that coax water from the clouds and transfer it, drop by drop, from the canopy down into the delicate native ground covers—ferns and mosses—that absorb the falling water and allow it to soak into the earth, rather than run off. “If we let our forests degrade and erode,” he says, “if we let the pigs and goats and other invasives run rampant, then eventually we’ll have to reduce our pumpage, because the aquifers will shrink and we’ll get more seawater intrusion. It won’t happen today or tomorrow, but decades from now. So you work at it now so you can sustain what you’re already pumping out.”

Usagawa stresses the distinction between ground- and surface water management. The big issues with groundwater, the source for most of the state’s potable water supply, include pumping too much too fast out of aquifers, which causes brackish infusion; and the energy costs involved in pumping water out of deeper and deeper wells.

Surface water is a relatively new management issue, he says. Generally unfit for drinking because of microbial pathogens, untreated stream water has long been the step-child of water management: considered good for agricultural and landscape irrigation and little else.

But now all that has changed, due in part, Usagawa says, to the legal repercussions stemming from a decades-long struggle by a small group of farmers to revive a few O‘ahu streams and return them to something approaching their natural flow after a century of diversion for sugar cane irrigation.

photo by Dana Edmunds

Taro Patches and Sugar Water

One can only imagine how the Polynesians felt when they first arrived in Hawai‘i and saw how much water there was.

Today, hidden in the underbrush, rocky humps and tumble-down stone ditches litter valleys throughout the wetter parts of the state—remnants of the Hawaiian science of taro cultivation. A big, beautiful tuber, taro matures best in mud that’s flooded over with cool, foot-deep, fast-moving stream water. So, Hawaiians terraced the earth into neatly squared, rock-bound lo‘i that looked and worked rather like rice paddies. Stone ‘auwai, or canals, diverted stream water into the lo‘i. The water flowed from one patch to another down the hillside and back into the stream.

Nutritious taro was the staple of the Hawaiian diet and central to the culture. The plant is connected by genealogy, in fact, to the first Hawaiian people.

Ahupua‘a, the basic land (and community) subdivision, is generally based on watersheds: a stream and its valley. Water was a basic organizing principle, a deity, a manifestation of the god Kane. There are many names for the different rains of Kane.

And then everything changed.

Impacts of western contact on Hawai‘i’s water resources in the early 19th century included grazing by imported cattle and the sandalwood trade, both of which denuded huge swaths of Hawaiian forest, severely damaging important watersheds. Later developments included the notion of private property and the alienation of many Hawaiians from their traditional homelands, and the development of huge sugar plantations as the new basis for the Hawaiian economy.

To irrigate the miles-wide lawns of what is, essentially, a giant, thirsty grass, sugar plantation engineers dug holes on coastal plains and unleashed gushing artesian fountains. Inland, they dug deep wells down into the aquifers. Looking farther afield, they devised gravity-fed ditch systems to ship stream water out of spectacular windward valleys miles away.

As demands for sugar water grew, so did the reach of the ditch systems, engineering marvels of their time. By 1920, Hawai‘i’s sugar industry was diverting a staggering 800 million gallons of stream water daily (mgd) and pumping another 400 mgd from Island aquifers. To feed King Sugar, over 90 percent of Hawai‘i’s perennial streams were at least partially diverted.

The wholesale diversion of surface water was bound to have consequences eventually.

Like, about now.

The big news in the Hawaiian water story is all about a paradigm shift in the state’s approach to water management, prompted by recent grassroots efforts to restore the health of windward O‘ahu streams.

The story begins when the O‘ahu Sugar Company, founded in 1897, completed the 22-mile Waiahole Ditch in 1916. Designed to divert streams on O‘ahu’s windward side and then tunnel nearly 3 miles through the Ko‘olau mountain mass, the ditch delivered about 28 mgd to the plantation’s sugar fields on the central O‘ahu plain.

Twelve years ago, O‘ahu Sugar harvested its last crop and shut down, citing high costs and competition from cheaper foreign sugar. By then, there were only a handful of sugar plantations still operating in Hawai‘i. What became of the vast fields and costly ditches? Well, what were once plantations became land developers and water companies. Huge tracts of land were summarily rezoned from agricultural to urban uses, and nearly everyone assumed that the sugar water would now be used to irrigate new resorts, new golf courses and new suburbs. O‘ahu Sugar morphed into a series of suburbs—Waikele, Village Park, Royal Kunia—and the Waiahole Irrigation Company, which sold water to users in leeward O‘ahu.

Meanwhile, on the windward side, a small band of taro farmers and grassroots activists wondered why their stream, Waiahole stream, shouldn’t be given some of its water back. The plantation had reduced the stream’s flow by 90 percent, from 30 mgd to 3 mgd, while neighboring Waikane stream had shrunk from about 7 mgd to 1 mgd. It seemed such a simple, earnest request that a child might have asked it.

In fact, it was a wake-up call: What kind of precedent would it set to turn the spigot back on for a few windward streams on O‘ahu?

The coalition of windward farmers and activists, and their pro bono lawyers, petitioned the state’s Water Commission to amend upward the “interim in-stream flow standards” for several windward streams affected by the Waiahole Ditch. They argued that increased flow would be beneficial to the streams themselves and to adjacent farmers, who could, by rights, restore ancient abandoned lo‘i in the area and thus grow taro as their ancestors had done for centuries. They claimed that increased stream flows would also rehabilitate the stressed estuarine ecology of Kane‘ohe Bay and flew in an academic expert from Florida to vouch for the science.

Arrayed against the farmers were landowners, developers, most government agencies—and their lawyers. The deliberations that followed were unprecedented in size, duration and complexity. After the windward parties proved that ditch operators were dumping unused water into leeward gulches, a mediated agreement mandated the temporary return to Waiahole stream of 8 mgd of so-called “surplus” ditch water.

The water began to flow on Christmas Eve, 1994, and Waiahole residents held a party to celebrate. It was the first time the state of Hawai‘i had ordered that water be returned to its stream of origin. But that was only the beginning for the farmers. Subsequent appeals of Water Commission proceedings went directly to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, and it was there that the big picture got much, much bigger.

The clarifications of Hawai‘i water law that the case forced the court to enunciate were nothing less than stunning: “All water resources, without exception or distinction,” the court declared in 2000, were subject to “public trust principles,” as was the “maintenance of waters in their natural state.” The court said that the public trust doctrine, evolved through both Hawaiian and western common law as well as the state’s constitutional law, confers on the state the responsibility for holding natural resources, including both groundwater and surface water, in trust for the benefit of present and future generations. The court rejected the argument that private use for economic development qualified as a public-trust use.

“The Waiahole Ditch case was the spark that started the fire,” says legal dynamo Kapua Sproat, echoing BWS water resource manager Barry Usagawa and other observers. Sproat, 33, is one of several young activist lawyers who cut their teeth on the Waiahole fight.

“Waiahole is a beacon of hope for communities throughout Hawai‘i who are looking at this case after being subjected to years of plantation agriculture,” she says. “It’s not just a symbolic thing—it’s been very real.”

Sproat, a native of Kaua‘i who serves as staff attorney in the Honolulu office of Earthjustice, the nationally active environmental law firm, is now working on a case involving four streams in West Maui. The streams—Waikapu, ‘iao, Waiehu and Waihe‘e—make up the magnificent watershed called Na Wai ‘Eha (the four great waters) that once poured out of the West Maui mountains and emptied into the sea northwest of Kahului. Before sugar, it is said that Na Wai ‘Eha was the most productive taro-growing district in the Islands. For now, though, the streams are completely diverted, about two miles upstream from their mouths, to produce an average 65 mgd that now flows into pipes owned by Wailuku Water Company, formerly Wailuku Sugar.

Sproat’s clients are a group of downstream landowners and other stakeholders who, for any number of reasons, would like to see the perennial streams running to the sea once again. She says her strategy is to push first for the establishment of state-mandated “in-stream flow standards” for the four streams. The standards are set by costly (roughly $350,000 per stream) scientific studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Learning from Waiahole,” Sproat says, “what we’ve tried to do in the Na Wai ‘Eha case is say, ‘Look, we’re willing to go to the mat on this. We know how to do it, we’re good at it, but we think the community and the streams would be better served if we all focused our collective resources on first figuring out how much water the streams need.’

“Then we can start negotiating.”

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