posted in: April 1993, Editorial, Water | 0

Waiahole Tunnel: A Drain on Windward Resources

For 80 years, the streams of windward O`ahu have been diminished by the water that has been diverted to leeward O`ahu via the Waiahole ditch. In a chain reaction that probably has not yet wound down entirely, the streams’ diminishment has caused the loss of native aquatic life. Where once clear freshets ran, sparkling and cool, stream beds are now choked with California grass through which sluggish, warm water struggles on its slow journey to the sea. The estuarine fish nurseries of Kane`ohe Bay have been in decline due to the loss of up to 70 million gallons a day of fresh water, taken by the ditch and other uses.

Waiahole and Waikane valleys, the island’s poi bowl, have seen the acreage on which wetland taro is cultivated shrink to the merest remnant of what it used to be. Poi, the very staff of life to Hawaiians, is in short supply across the state. And while taro farmers in Waiahole want to expand their production, the water they need just isn’t there.

Forward to the Past

The announcement last year that Amfac/JMB-Hawai`i, Inc., would be closing down its sugar plantation in central O`ahu was greeted as a historic opportunity by the windward O`ahu farmers and their friends. In December 1993, three small organizations — the Waiahole-Waikane Community Association, the Hakipu`u Ohana, and the Kahalu`u Neighborhood Board — petitioned the state Commission on Water Resource Management to restore the flows to windward O`ahu streams by ending the diversion of water through the Waiahole ditch. In support of their petition, they have mustered an impressive array of environmental, cultural, recreational, and economic arguments.

Lined up against these three small Davids are Goliaths representing some of the most powerful players in Hawai`i: the Campbell Estate, the Robinson Trusts, Dole Foods, Del Monte, and the state Departments of Land and Natural Resources and Agriculture. All these, and more, have made common cause in the fight to keep the water flowing through the mountains and onto the central O`ahu plain. Not that there is any clear purpose for the water yet. Far from it. In the name of diversifying agriculture in leeward O`ahu, the list of possible “experimental” crops ranges from alfalfa to zucchini. None consumes as much water as sugar, yet the public is told that every drop of the 25 or so million gallons a day of water now transported out of windward O`ahu into the central plain is vital — if not for the crops, then for “aquifer recharge.”

Testing the Market

The arguments are specious at best.

First, there is little need to experiment with diversified crops in central O`ahu. As our article shows, there has been a long history of successful efforts to grow a wide range of crops in this area. That the plantations chose not to do so reflects their interest in maximizing their profits by selling to a world market, rather than a local one. The only thing “experimental” about the diversified ag proposals we’ve heard so far relates to locating the most lucrative markets, not to determining what will grow. In this regard, then, any hope that the owners of land in central O`ahu will now grow fresh produce for local consumption is utterly in vain — unless, of course, they manage somehow to curb imports of low-cost produce and thereby become sole suppliers to a hostage market.

As to aquifer recharge: as the windward petitioners have persuasively argued, the need to add fresh water to the central O`ahu aquifer that existed when sugar growers were pumping so much water from that groundwater source no longer exists now that sugar is on its way out. Then, too, there is no agreement on just how much of the windward water finds its way to the aquifer. The recharge value could be as little as 5 million gallons a day. If those arguing so strongly in favor of aquifer recharge were sincere, one might expect them to rise up in anger over Amfac’s current practice of wasting up to 15 million gallons a day in discharges to leeward gulches, where virtually no chance exists that the water will be used for aquifer recharge.


But in any event, if recharging the central O`ahu aquifer is a concern, why not use cleaned-up wastewater for this purpose? As Deputy Director of Health Bruce Anderson has argued, to discharge effluent to the sea after paying for expensive secondary treatment wastes a natural resource and taxpayer dollars. Anderson’s call for an analysis of the incremental cost of treating the wastewater to standards where it can be used for aquifer recharge should be heeded by the Water Commission and imposed as a requirement on any and all who seek the continued use of windward streams for this secondary purpose. In addition, the commission has retained a consultant, James Kumugai, to study effluent re-use. At the very least, any favorable decision on the continued transport of windward water to the leeward side should await release of his report.

The real reason no one in on the dry side of the Ko`olau range is motivated to find alternatives to Waiahole is economic. Water from afar that is delivered courtesy of gravity is a lot cheaper than water that must be pumped any distance, however close at hand. This was openly acknowledged by William Paty, whose testimony to the Water Commission described the cost of pumped water, at 45 to 50 cents per thousand gallons, as “too costly.”

“Too costly?” If one looks no further than the tariff that the state charges to Amfac — fractions of a cent per thousand gallons — as the only cost of Waiahole water, then it is true that nothing is so cheap. If one looks at the external costs of delivering Waiahole water to central O`ahu, the equation changes radically.

Consider the unfactored losses entailed by the taking of Waiahole water: There’s the loss of aquatic life in what used to be one of the state’s richest estuaries, Kane`ohe Bay, and the streams that used to flow freely into it. There’s the loss of taro land. The loss of opportunities for aquaculture. The threatened loss of a traditional way of life that is inherently incompatible with industrialized agriculture, vertically integrated farms, and the tenuous hold on land that seems to describe the farming opportunities anticipated for the central plain in the post-cane era.

Subsidies for the Rich

For years — in fact, for almost a century — these losses have been borne without public lament, save for the Waikane revolution of the 1970s. The losses have a cost, however, and it is past time for the state to acknowledge them.

The real reason Waiahole water is so cheap is that the costs of delivering it have been borne by the disenfranchised, the poor, and the voiceless.

The wrongs of the past cannot be undone, but today the chance exists to stop their perpetuation. It would be criminal to pass it up.

Mahalo Nui Loa

Gracious thanks to recent contributors: The G.A.G. Charitable Corporation, Besty Gagne, and Randy Ching. We would remind all readers that Environment Hawai`i, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. Donations over and above subscription payments are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Dept. of Red Faces

Some copies of the September 1994 edition are reported to be missing several pages. If you have a defective copy, please let us know and we’ll be happy to replace it.

Volume 5, Number 4 October 1994