At its February 14 meeting in Kona, after hours of testimony and discussion, the Commission on Water Resource Management denied a petition filed by the National Park Service (NPS) in September 2013 to designate the Keauhou aquifer system as a groundwater management area, finding that none of the designation triggers set forth in the state Water Code had been met.
The NPS filed the petition out of a belief that a stricter management regime needed to be imposed to ensure that fresh groundwater continued to flow into the coastal portions of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park — particularly its ancient fishponds and anchialine pools — as water demands in the development-targeted area grew. If the commission were to have designated the aquifer system as a groundwater management area, all withdrawals from it would have required a use permit from the commission.
The petition was controversial, to say the least.
“Since the petition submission, there have been lengthy discussions and community involvement … through 11 commission meetings (including two field investigations with videos) covering eight action submittals, 42 presentations/briefings/updates, 466 written testimonies, and various consultations with federal, state and county agencies, presentations to community groups, and staff field investigations,” a staff report states.
Ultimately, however, the petition forced the commission and the Hawai`i County Department of Water Supply to investigate and flesh out the area’s current and future water needs for the first time and to identify ways to ensure that traditional and customary rights were taken into account in management decisions regarding the aquifer system.
Shortly before taking up the NPS petition at the February meeting, the Water Commission approved an update to the county’s Water Use and Development Plan that describes how the DWS — through watershed-protection and well-development strategies, among other things — will ensure the sustainable use of the Keauhou aquifer resource and at the same time not infringe on constitutionally protected traditional and customary rights. The county has committed to consulting with the state’s Aha Moku Advisory Council and the Department of Hawaiian Home lands when evaluating new proposed county wells in the area.
When it came time to discuss the NPS petition, commission hydrologic program manager Roy Hardy touted the county’s past practices and its WUDP update as examples of good resource management.
“Today, we are part of the plan to protect the [national] park with the acceptance of the Phase 2 Water Use and Development Plan,” he said.
Hardy recommended that the commission deny the petition because the criteria for designating groundwater water management areas had not been met. Triggers for designation include:
1) an increase in use or authorized planned use that may cause the maximum rate of withdrawal to reach 90 percent of the sustainable yield;
2) a determination by the Department of Health that water quality degradation is occurring or is threatened;
3) a finding that regulation is necessary to preserve the diminishing ground water supply for future needs, as evidenced by excessively declining ground water levels;
4) rates, times, spatial patterns, or depths of existing withdrawals endanger the stability of optimum development of the groundwater due to upconing or the encroachment of salt water;
5) an increase in chloride levels of wells to the point they reduce the value of existing uses;
6) excessive preventable waste of ground water;
7) serious disputes respecting the use of groundwater; or
8) a threat that water development projects that have received federal, state, or county approval may result in one of the above conditions.
With regard to the first trigger, a commission staff report notes that current “authorized planned use” of the aquifer according to the WUDP is 28.07 million gallons per day (mgd), which is nearly 74 percent of the aquifer’s sustainable yield of 38 mgd. Hardy added that actual use as of November 2016 totaled a mere 39 percent of the sustainable yield.
He said that actual water use in the area had not changed much since the petition was filed, adding that, at the rate use has been increasing, the sustainable yield would be reached about 69 years from now.
With regard to the second and third triggers, Hardy reported that the DOH has stated that it does not see any threat to water quality in the Keauhou aquifer system area and that commission staff’s evaluation of the aquifers in the area found that water levels aren’t changing.
With regard to triggers four and five, Hardy noted that the county has successfully spread out its well pumping to avoid increased chloride levels.
Regarding trigger six, contrary to the petition’s claim that water consumption in North Kona averages 1,000 gallons per day per single-family dwelling — 2.5 times higher than other areas of the county — commission staff found that meter records show that the actual average usage was a “reasonable” 430 gallons per day.
As for the “serious disputes” trigger, commission staff argues in its report to the commission that many of the issues identified by the NPS as areas of dispute can be addressed without designating the aquifer. For example, Hardy told the commission, disputes over the aquifer system’s sustainable yield are most appropriately dealt with in the commission’s Water Resource Protection Plan (WRPP) process.
“The WRPP is the appropriate venue to address sustainable yield. Petitions are not the appropriate process,” he said, adding that the commission plans to release its proposed WRPP update this year.
Commission staff recommended the adoption of eight actions as alternatives to designation, including referring all well permit applications to the Aha Moku Council for review to protect traditional and customary practices, and commencing public informational meetings if authorized planned use reaches 80 percent of the area’s sustainable yield.
The commission ultimately approved its staff’s recommendations, with the amendment that the commission also send well permits to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands for review.
Commissioner and Hawai`i island resident Kamana Beamer was the sole dissenter, stating before the vote that he believed serious disputes regarding groundwater usage did, indeed, exist.
After commissioners Mike Buck and Neil Hannahs expressed confidence that the new county plan and staff’s recommended actions would protect the area’s water resources, Beamer stressed, “It’s not an issue of trust with me. I trust staff.” However, he added that there seemed to be “structural barriers” that might prevent the optimum spacing of wells, for example. “Short of designation, we can’t space out the wells to avoid upconing,” he said. Upconing occurs when salt water is drawn up through the aquifer as a result of over-pumping.
— Teresa Dawson