LETTER: Answer to Water Woes is Up, Not Down

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In my open letter, “Digging Deeper Into Hawai‘i Island’s Well Failures,” published on Sept. 14, 2017, I addressed issues around water pumping, the deep wells, the water board and DWS. These all require attention but there is an even larger and more pressing aspect; the water source itself.

Kudos to Arne Werchick for his ‘out of the box’ desalination thinking, Nestorio Domingo for his courage to speak out and to Roger Hansen (and others) thinking along the ‘aqueduct’ water transport lines. All excellent. But I want to point in a totally different direction; perhaps what might become known as the world’s largest water gage.

I want to propose that the larger answer is not down (at the bottom of our deep wells), but up (at the tops of our mountains.

The very mountains that create and magnify our weather systems and literally ‘squeeze’ the water out of the clouds; it is our only source of fresh water. Stand beside the stream behind Anna Ranch and you see the answer; we cannot take more out than is put in. If we knew how much was going in, we could know how much could be safely and conscientiously pumped out.

While I disagree with Mr. Domingo on dual redundancy, it is not for financial reasons. His idea should have started us all thinking that if dual is good, why not quadruple? Or tenfold? Aside from the costs, DWS capabilities, lack of public confidence, etc., is there a hard limit? When is more a bad thing?


When it upsets a delicately balanced equilibrium in the hydrostatic forces within the core of our island between the fresh water aquifer and the saltwater surrounding us, there is a winner and loser.

If the salt water begins winning, the island loses.

We can intervene in this process by using more or less water (islandwide). Then where is the ‘tipping point’. We cannot know for sure with precision, but we can make some safe assumptions based on what we do know; there is a freshwater aquifer(s) at significant depths that we are accessing at multiple points around the island with public and private wells, these aquifers are thought to be directly connected naturally and since we are thousands of miles from natural freshwater sources it can be assumed that there are no underground springs.

Our island is, in effect, a closed system. If we think of our underground aquifer(s) as a reservoir, it makes intuitive sense to measure the input to it (minus somewhat predictable losses) thus providing an approximation of the allowable withdrawal.


Obviously, this volume will fluctuate as our rainfall fluctuates, meaning this is a dynamic condition and requires a good deal of thinking, planning and number crunching. It also means that there MUST be limits imposed on the withdrawals from our ‘reservoir’, both public and private.

This requires a substantial change in our fundamental thinking about water and water rights, but it’s basically very simple; use a thousand gallons and you pay for a thousand gallons (no matter who you are or whose well is used to provide it, AND, your water account WILL be rationed (in line with the rainfall logic above).

Voluntary conservation is a well-intentioned but meaningless concept. In a closed system, numbers must be assigned or nothing balances. Is it fair? Yes, and it can be made even more so.

The real challenges in my view lie in the sensing, collection and analysis of rainfall data, which likely does not now exist. Such data must be reported islandwide, on a continuous basis, clustered sensors in areas of usually highest rainfalls with real-time logging.


Linking to high-resolution Doppler radar, microwave or other imaging technology would enhance the accuracy. It is conceivable that the observatories might also be able to assist by applying their functions to unique weather structure observations during daylight hours using new methods. If fully implemented, vast amounts of data would be generated requiring advanced processing to make it usable, perhaps on the order of a Cray MPP, or the like.

There is no such system (that I’m aware of) in Hawai‘i currently, but there is likely to be one; the TMT core processor at the heart of what will become their analytical effort.

A weeks’ worth of weather logging plus thirty minutes of processing time and we’ve got our water budget.

This is an effort begging for UH and statewide involvement.

Letters, commentaries and opinion pieces are not edited by Big Island Now.

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