The Keauhou aquifer already supports most of West Hawai`i’s wells and underlies lands targeted for urbanization by the Kona Community Development Plan.
With its petition, the NPS is forcing the Water Commission – for the first time – to assess the groundwater needs of public trust resources that are also necessary for traditional and customary practices.
Should the Water Commission find that designation is warranted, all current and future users of the aquifer system will need to acquire a water use permit from the commission. That includes not only the dozen or so operators of the 51 existing wells, but also new developments, such as the 1,143-acre master planned community known as Kaloko Makai, which proposes thousands of new homes, a school, a hospital, hundreds of resort units and commercial and industrial space upslope of the park.
A decision on the petition is likely months away. As of mid-September, Water Commission director William Tam had not read it.
“They’ve talked to us for the last couple of years. I didn’t realize they were going to do this,” Tam said.
Hawai`i County Department of Water Supply manager Quirino Antonio did not respond to questions by press time.
When asked how designation might affect development in the area, Peter Young, a consultant for Kaloko Makai, said simply, “We’re looking into it.”
Long Time Coming
It’s been, in fact, several years that the NPS has been talking to the commission, and to anyone else who would listen, about its concerns that increasing groundwater withdrawals will eventually harm the culturally and ecologically important native species that rely that flow to survive and thrive. Those species include `ama`ama (striped mullet), limu manauea (Gracilaria coronopifolia), limu kohu (Asparagopsis taxiformis), the orange-black damselfly (Megalagrion xanthomelas), `opae `ula (Halocaridina rubra), the ae`o (endangered Hawaiian stilt, Himantopus himantopus) and the `alae ke`oke`o (endangered Hawaiian coot, Fulica alai).
In 1999, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Delwyn Oki determined that 6.48 million gallons a day of fresh water discharged into the ocean from the park before the onslaught of development in the area. But if all of the 30 or so wells permitted before 1998 were pumped at their maximum rate, Oki found that groundwater flow from the park would drop to 47 percent of what it had been in 1978.
Since Oki’s report, the Water Commission has approved permits for about 20 more wells for the Keauhou aquifer. Currently, the total permitted pumping capacity is 38 mgd, which is equivalent to the aquifer’s sustainable yield.
What’s more, the county has approved land use plans and zoning that may one day leave the park boxed in by development requiring six times the sustainable yield of the Keauhou aquifer system, according to the county’s Water Use and Development Plan.
Current reported water use is only about 13 mgd, 34 percent of the sustainable yield. However, the petition notes, “Actual water use is not known because pumpage is not being reported for over two-thirds of the permitted production wells in the aquifer system.”
As early as 2008, the NPS convened stakeholder meetings to investigate ways to conserve water and protect the park’s resources. But with the county’s competing group, the Kona Water Roundtable, sometimes holding meetings on the same day, the park service eventually stopped its efforts. In December 2012, the roundtable finally included a presentation by the NPS on its agenda.
“Despite six years of efforts by the Water Commission, the Park, and other stakeholders to address the potential impacts of proposed development at the Kona Water Roundtable and other venues, no plan has been produced to protect water-dependent cultural and natural resources from the cumulative effects of groundwater withdrawals,” states an NPS press release announcing the petition.
Some people just aren’t convinced that the park’s resources are in danger of losing their freshwater supply.
At a September 19, 2012, Water Commission meeting where the NPS presented evidence that groundwater pumping was already causing increased salinity in parts of the park, Peter Young, who was also former Water Commission chair, testified that recent studies suggest there is far more fresh water available from the Keauhou aquifer than previously thought.
Young referred to a 2011 USGS study by John Engott that recalculated the likely recharge to aquifers across the island. For Keauhou, Engott found, the recharge rate was about 77 percent higher than the rate used in 2008 by the Water Commission to calculate the sustainable yield of 38 mgd. Even under various climate change scenarios, Engott found the recharge rate to be significantly higher than 87 mgd, the rate used by the Water Commission.
Young has also pointed out that recent well drilling by hydrologist Tom Nance discovered a cache of freshwater beneath saltwater in the area.
“A sustainable yield of 38 mgd is most likely low,” Young told the commission.
The NPS petition, however, argues that “[t]he feasibility of developing one or more artesian freshwater zones below salt water for drinking water … is highly speculative, as is the assertion that wells tapping this zone will not reduce groundwater discharge to coastal ecosystems.”
It also points out that the method used to calculate the sustainable yield – the Robust Analytical Model – assumes that pumping is uniformly distributed. It is not, the petition states, adding that the Water Commission itself has recommended that because of the lack of site-specific data, the sustainable yields “should be used as a guide in planning rather than an inflexible constraint.”
The petition continues that the RAM also assumed that all groundwater pumping comes from basal aquifers when, in fact, the Keauhou aquifer includes higher elevation groundwater. The relationship between the two areas, however, is still being investigated. In March of 2012, the Water Commission and the NPS funded a USGS study that proposed to track isotopes in rainfall to follow how water moves from the high-level groundwater system to the basal aquifer. The USGS has completed its data collection, but had not released any results as of press time.
In any case, the sustainable yield may protect the water quality of an inland well, but “it does not prevent saltwater intrusion at the coastline,” the petition states, noting also that the Water Commission only has two monitoring wells in the area and they are more than seven miles away from the park.
“The RAM methodology … does not explicitly consider the impacts of reducing groundwater discharge by 44 percent on traditional and customary Native Hawaiian rights and practices and other public trust resources along the Kona Coast,” the petition states, adding that the Water Commission recognized this in its 2008 Water Resources Protection Plan.
The Water Commission is currently updating its Water Resources Protection Plan, which will likely include revised sustainable yields. These will incorporate new precipitation models from the USGS that, for the first time, include recharge from fog drip.
As Engott’s study found, in most cases, the recharge for the Keauhou region is likely vastly higher when fog drip contribution is considered. However, in drought conditions, Engott found, the sustainable yield in Keauhou is a mere 28 mgd.
With the drier conditions and rise in sea level expected as a result of climate change, the University of Hawai`i’s Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy (ICAP) has suggested that the Water Commission start now to identify and designate the state’s most vulnerable areas.
In ICAP’s 2012, “Water Resources and Climate Change Adaptation in Hawai`i: Adaptive Tools in the Current Law and Policy Framework,” authors Richard Wallsgrove and David Penn argued that WMAs provide for more adaptive management by the Water Commission compared to non-designated areas.
“In addition to the powers of the [Water Commission’s] permitting process, designation can also promote adaptation [to climate change] through improved monitoring and inventorying of water resources,” they wrote.
They also argued that a statewide permit system was always the intended goal when the Water Code was adopted decades ago.
“A review commission was established and tasked with reporting to the Legislature on various matters, including the adoption of a statewide permit system. The commission recommended such a system in 1994, but it has not been adopted. Presently, only Moloka‘i, most of O‘ahu, and the ‘Iao aquifer on Maui have been designated as ground WMAs. In 2008, Na Wai ‘Eha, Maui was designated as the first surface WMA since the Code’s inception,” they wrote.
The criteria for designating groundwater WMAs include whether:
- use or authorized planned use may cause the maximum rate of withdrawal to reach 90 percent of the sustainable yield;
- the Department of Health determines that water quality degradation is occurring or is threatened;
- groundwater levels decline;
- existing withdrawals endanger the groundwater due to the encroachment of salt water;
- excessive preventable waste of groundwater is occurring; or
- serious disputes respecting the use of groundwater are occurring.
Penn and Wallsgrove point out that, whether or not any of those criteria are met, the Water Code directs the commission to designate a WMA “when it can be reasonably determined … that the water resources in an area may be threatened by existing or proposed withdrawals or diversions of water.”
“Climate-related phenomena, such as the declining trends in rainfall and base flow, unquestionably pose a threat to water resources. WMA designation is a long process. The earlier that a threatened hydrologic system is designated, the more effective the process can be in protecting the threatened resource,” they wrote.
The NPS petition also points out that in 2012, the state Legislature passed a bill amending the Hawai`i State Planning Act to “encourage state and county agencies to integrate climate adaptation policy into their long-term planning, and to consider traditional Native Hawaiian knowledge and practices in planning for the impacts of climate change. … A designated [WMA] is one forward-looking adaptive tool that the commission can use to make a critical difference in Hawai`i’s water future and adaptation to declining rainfall and rising sea level.”