Waters of Oahu — A tour of Honolulu’s biggest water source

So here’s an update, got a couple of questions about if the fuel tank situation at Red Hill has any effect on the aquifer. Plain answer, I don’t know but here’s some documents from Board of Water supply that helps answer that question.
Red Hill Administrative Record https://data.hawaiiopendata.org/redhill/
Also something @bytemarks wrote for Hawaii Open Data
http://hawaiiopendata.com/2015/07/red-hill-administrative-order/
Board of water supply on Red Hill http://www.boardofwatersupply.com/cssweb/display.cfm?sid=125087
EPA page on Red Hill http://www3.epa.gov/region09/waste/ust/redhill/index.html
Hawaii DOH State page on Red Hill http://health.hawaii.gov/RedHill
At the end of the day, I don’t know if the tanks at Red Hill will have any effect on our aquifer, but again since this provides at least 20% of Honolulu’s drinking water. I hope all parties will take the appropriate action to mitigate whatever issues there are. In other words, no mess up our water please. -RL

When I lived in Washington State, it was easy to take water for granted. It rained practically every day, everything was always wet and at least in Kirkland, walk a mile in any direction you’d find a stream. Which was a stark contrast to what I’m used to in Hawaii; I mean sure I’ve seen a few reservoirs here like the fisherman’s and photographer’s favorite Nuuanu reservoir, Lake Wilson, or the big water catchments you sometimes see out in the rural areas as well as the odd big green water tanks/buildings you find in what seems like the most random places. Yet exactly where our drinking water came from was a mystery, in Hong Kong I was used to seeing massive reservoirs that you could point to and say “yes our water comes from there.” The reservoirs were so massive, some of them even became recreational areas, pretty amazing for that tiny little city state.

So when Bytemarks (aka Burt Lum) let it slip that he was going on a tour of the biggest aquifer on Oahu, I wormed my way into the tour (thanks Burt for letting me tag along). I’ll try not to let this turn into a “what I did on the field trip” post but well, frankly, it is a “what I did on the field trip” post. I had never visited the Board of Water supply Xeriscape Gardens before, it was deep in Halawa past all the industrial buildings, which I found paradoxical in that all these industries are doing their stuff right over Honolulu’s biggest water supply. While not the main focus of the tour, it was interesting to see the Xeriscape plants which in an oversimplified description are plants that require very little water to grow. So a lot of cactuses, plants that collect water on their own etc.

Xeriscape plants

The tour itself starts behind this gigantic board of water supply logo, inside the big green building is a 150 feet(ish) shaft that brings you down to see the top of the aquifer. The first chamber right after the descent are the facility’s 3 pumps, it definitely reminded me of the big turbines I saw at the dam in Washington/Oregon but on a smaller scale.

Left to Right 3 pumps, the big logo and the 140 feet shaft.

Next is a short walk down a 300 foot tunnel where you get to see the actual water level in the aquifer. I had a moment of sensory dissonance, as hard as I looked I just couldn’t see the water level. It took me a while to see “wet mark” at the far end of the pool. The water was so clear, it was really hard to see where the water level was. Look at the picture, it’s practically impossible to tell where the water starts. I think the combination of having the lighting only coming from the flood lights, the stillness of the water and the clarity of the water itself all contributed to that brain bending sight. Needless to say, I’ve never seen water that clear.

There isn’t much to say, we need to conserve water, the most graphic display of how much water we’ve depleted since 1954 is this multi-foot tall ruler that lists the various heights of the water since 1954 thru 1994. People like to point to a perceived overpopulation of Oahu (something I don’t buy into), increasing population definitely has played a role, but it isn’t the only reason. Record dry years over the last few decades haven’t helped the situation, as well as the lasting legacy of the plantation days (BWS has found traces of old pesticides & other farming related chemicals, in the aquifers of central Oahu and the aquifers out in the areas where there was heavy commercial farming), where more water was taken out of the system than it could readily replenish. What’s more some of the aquifers have actually been polluted by the old farming techniques, which resulted in increased pumping water from other aquifers to compensate.

It’s strange, but I’ve had a recurring relationship with water over the years, starting with my own experience of having to pump water out of the ground when visiting my relatives in the Philippines during the summers. To meeting Estria & 808 Urban and learning thru their art about water rights (writes) around the world. As well as seeing the drought stricken areas in Washington state, and seeing the results of the water shortage in California during my visit to San Francisco in February.

It’s all a reminder that we need to conserve this precious resource, and while I live in a society where I turn a spigot and out comes potable water; the scary fact is, that all could change with an extended dry spell, a chemical spill in the wrong place or even a simple power outage. This tour has definitely changed my view of how we waste water, especially considering that for Honolulu, 25% of our water comes out of basically that hole in the ground I visited today. Thanks for reading, if you’d like to see more of the pictures follow the link to my flickr gallery.

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