Water needs to be protected

Recently, concerned parties from throughout Hawaii gathered in Makena for three days of presentations on the state of water systems in Hawaii, and especially the effect of a changing climate on weather systems and rainfall throughout our state.

The consensus, most pointedly among the scientific community, i.e., the U.S. Geological Survey and Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments, was that Hawaii is rapidly becoming warmer and that there has been a substantial decrease in rainfall throughout Hawaii.

Speakers included Jesse Souki, director of the state Office of Planning, Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism; William Tam, deputy director for Water Resource Management, state Department of Land and Natural Resources; and economist Paul Brewbaker. They were joined by speakers from all phases of county, state and federal government.

Designed and implemented by Maui County’s Water Resources and Planning program manager, Pam Pogue, the conference addressed a broad array of issues.

Though most of the presentations were both informative and stimulating, one issue now before the Maui County Board of Water Supply – the issue of wellhead protection – stuck with me.

About 10 years ago, the USGS did a National Water Quality Assessment survey. According to Robert Whittier, a hydrogeologist, presently with the Hawaii Department of Health, Safe Drinking Water Branch, “Hawaii had the highest rate of contaminant detection of soil fumigants and third highest for organic solvents in public drinking water supply wells of the 50 states.”

The survey sampled 30 public drinking water wells on Oahu and found pesticide contamination in 63 percent of the wells, and industrial solvents and soil fumigants in 40 percent of the wells. On Maui, the 2011 Hawaii Department of Health groundwater contamination maps showed 18 contaminated wells on Maui (of those sampled) – eight of which are public drinking water wells.

Whittier noted, “Past land use practices have resulted in significant contamination of Hawaii’s groundwater resources.”

The major contributor by far to such contamination is commercial agriculture.

A disheartening conclusion by Whittier is that “once an aquifer is contaminated, it must be considered a permanent condition and the only options for the affected drinking water wells are expensive long-term treatment at the wellhead or abandonment of the well.”

So, it surprises me that the Board of Water Supply is reluctant to adopt what are, to most of us, very mild and somewhat minimal wellhead protection measures. Each one of the other 50 states has adopted wellhead protection ordinances, which try to protect a diminishing drinking water supply.

The major objection to adoption of wellhead protection standards is that it may constitute a taking. This seems somewhat backward to me, as indeed all waters – running waters and groundwater – are public trust waters, not owned or exclusively for use by landowners but by the community at large. I would consider the contamination of groundwaters themselves to be a taking of what are meant to be public resources.

Whether the Maui County Board of Water Supply will act in the public interest and take the lead in Hawaii for protection of our groundwater resources is still in question. For the benefit of all Hawaii’s citizens and for future generations, I pray the board will give this issue renewed and thoughtful consideration.

* Michael Howden, is a former chairman of the Maui County Board of Water Supply. He lives in Olinda.