Chad Blair: Draining The Swamp At Hawaii’s Capitol

As the 50th anniversary of the historic building nears, it’s high time to fix the murky reflecting pools.
Honolulu Civil Beat - February 15, 2018
By: 
Chad Blair

The phrase “drain the swamp” is usually applied to Washington, D.C.

But Hawaii has its own little swamp at the state Capitol in the form of the two reflecting pools that nearly surround the building.

The murky accumulation of algae, scum and slime has been a problem for decades. Legislators have been frustrated by the state’s seeming inability to resolve the mess.

To that end, a bill to spend $100,000 to study how to rehabilitate and renovate the pool was heard in a Senate committee Tuesday.

But it was decided that it wasn’t necessary because the Hawaii Legislature gave $1.2 million to the Department of Accounting and General Services just last year to fund a planning and design process for the pool. Comptroller Rod Becker said that process is underway.

I sure hope so, but I’m not holding my breath (except sometimes when I am near the pools and they don’t smell so good).

This is not the first time that Sen. Mike Gabbard, the author of the now-deferred pool bill, has pushed for a solution. Just three years ago, for example, he wrote a Community Voices piece for Civil Beat titled It’s Time To Fix The Hawaii State Capitol Reflecting Pools.

Gabbard wrote:

Over the years the pool has leaked many times, causing damage to the electrical system and air conditioning in the building.

Furthermore, it costs $100,000 annually for state workers to continually clean the pool waters, which are fed by brackish water from wells. The latest estimate is that it would take approximately $15.2 million to fix the Reflecting Pools.

Unfortunately, even if we spent that much money, we’d still have to come back in several years and do it all over again, because there will always be leaks.

Gabbard, who also tried unsuccessfully to appropriate $11.5 million to improve the pools in 2013, suggested in his opinion piece that historic preservation experts told him that the pools don’t necessarily have to hold water as long as they reflect or symbolize water.

He suggested doing “something creative” with the pools such as installing artistic tiling and water-themed sculptures by local artists.

So far, nothing has happened along those lines, and progress appears difficult.

How About A Taro Patch?

Two years ago, my colleague Courtney Teague reported on the greenish-brown pools because dead fish were found floating in them.

“The Capitol is on the state and national Registers of Historic Places, which require that recognized buildings maintain their defining features in any renovation,” she wrote.

The pools are supposed to symbolize the ocean surrounding the islands, but instead it’s more like the fetid Kapalama Canal in Kalihi.

At least lawmakers are starting to think outside the pool … er, box. A House bill in 2016 would have made funding available for a “choreographed water fountain show with light displays and Hawaiian music” to circulate the stagnant water. But it was never heard.

(Another idea floated about, which I like: install a small fountain and taro patch to honor the host culture.)

Just how long have we been whining about the reflecting pools?

Here’s a 1998 article from the defunct Honolulu Star-Bulletin titled “Capitol Algae Run Amok.” Reporter Craig Gima wrote that the state was spending $74,100 a year “in a losing battle to keep the pools muck-free.”

He continued:

The contracts to clean the pools and for a machine that is supposed to help kill the algae are more than double the $31,000 a year that the state paid when algae-eating tilapia lived in the pools before the Capitol’s $67 million renovation in 1993.

Not replacing the fish was supposed to save the state thousands of dollars because it would be cheaper to clean the pools without them. At least that’s what state officials told the Star-Bulletin in 1996 when the renovation was completed.

The article was written so long ago that Gima is now working for AARP Hawaii.

DAGS said at that time that federal and city law made it difficult to return the tilapia to the pools. A special permit was needed to dump water with fish poop into storm drains. The fish poop also apparently helped grow algae and contributed to the smell.

(The tilapia, by the way, were introduced in the pool on the Senate side of the Capitol in 1976 — just seven years after the Capitol was opened.)

Then-Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom described the handling of the algae problem as a symbol of what’s wrong with state government.

“Maybe this is educational also because it shows how many things can’t be done in this state,” Slom said.

Slom is gone from the Senate, but the problem remains.

Swamp Dwellers

A recent Community Voices piece from Keith Rollman, a Capitol denizen, said fish are still swimming in the “moat,” as he called the pools. He said this includes a 3-foot barracuda.

I visited the pools Wednesday and didn’t see any fish. I didn’t smell any foul odor, either, although the rain was coming down pretty hard and may have masked the smell.

I did peer into the pools, however, and I swear it looked like the bottoms were encrusted with barnacles.

I also saw a large group of school kids and people sitting on benches beside the pools. It’s a peaceful place to be (as long as the smokers aren’t around) and a reminder that Hawaii’s Capitol is unique. It resembles no other.

(To understand why, check out this writeup on the Historic Hawaii Foundation website.)

Lawmakers this session are requesting $100,000 or so to help the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts fund celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Capitol.

Wouldn’t it be nice to finally solve the conundrum of the reflecting pools?