Warming up: As droughts continue, Hawaii must protect its fresh water

Honolulu Star Advertiser - March 27, 2016
Sen. Mike Gabbard and Rep. Ryan Yamane

Last October, after an unseasonable and unprecedented rainy summer, the U.S. Drought Monitor declared that for the first time since April 15, 2008 no part of our island chain was suffering from drought.

For seven long years, our farmers, ranchers and citizens had endured a prolonged dry period throughout Hawaii that caused cattle herds to be thinned, crops to suffer and spiked our rate of forest fires. Unfortunately, our relief was short-lived.

Today, just five months later, 54 percent of our island area is again locked in “moderate drought” and 100 percent of our islands are “abnormally dry.” As we live through one of the largest El Niño events on record, our islands may get even drier through 2016.

Why is this happening now? Long-term climate change trends seem to be bringing drought to Hawaii more frequently. Over the past 30 years as temperatures have risen, our average annual rainfall amount has fallen by a staggering 22 percent. Our beloved tradewind days have declined by 28 percent — from an average of 291 trade wind days in 1973 to only 210 in 2009. And when we do get rain, increasingly it tends to come in large — even epic — events where several inches may fall in just a few hours, causing stormwater runoff instead of the soft, gentle rains that slowly seep into the soil and our precious island aquifers for later use.

The Legislature understands that water is the lifeblood of our society, and long-term fresh water security is a key element to our economic health and our unique quality of life. Even as we address critical issues such as homelessness and health care this session, we acknowledge the need to work proactively to protect our fresh water supply.

We have watched the sobering experience of California as it suffered through $2.74 billion in damage to its economy in 2015 alone as a result of the ongoing drought and water supply problems — and the clear lesson is that a few ounces of prevention are far better than many tons of cure. We are moving to preserve our supply of the best drinking water in the world with innovative new solutions and policies.
Last year in 2015, the Legislature passed several key bills signed by Gov. David Ige that will help enable water infrastructure upgrades, encourage water recycling at state facilities, and capture stormwater runoff before it enters our oceans.

This legislative session we are building on this foundation with another comprehensive package of fresh water bills that will decrease water system leaks (House Bill 2041); foster public-private partnerships to reuse, conserve and recharge our water (House Bills 2029 and 2040); commit to statewide water reuse and recycling (House Bill 1749); improve storm water retention and capture (House Bill 1750); and provide incentives to residents who adopt water-saving devices in their homes (House Bill 2042).

In concert with these policy changes, the independent, nonprofit Hawai‘i Community Foundation recently released a report from a blue-ribbon commission that said to ensure water security, Hawaii must secure 100 million gallons a day in additional, reliable fresh water supply by 2030 even as less rain falls on our Islands.

We have embraced this challenge and will continue to improve our water policies in ways that move us toward this shared statewide goal.

While these policy changes are an important start, all of us need to work together planting trees, turning off the tap, and — most importantly — teaching our keiki the value of wai in order to truly protect our shared water future.