Hawaii’s Looming Water Catastrophe: The Triple Threat to Oahu’s Supply

Source: LI COHEN

In the heart of the Pacific, Hawaii’s island of Oahu faces an unprecedented water crisis. As the saying goes, “Ola i ka wai” – water is life. But now, a combination of factors threatens the very essence of existence in this tropical paradise. Brace yourself for a journey into the depths of Oahu’s water woes and the urgent call for action to prevent a catastrophe.

Oahu’s Fragile Freshwater Lifeline

Oahu, the third-largest of Hawaii’s six major islands, relies on a single underground aquifer for its precious freshwater supply. Replenishing this aquifer is a painstakingly slow process, taking a staggering 25 years for a single raindrop to make its way from the sky to the underground reservoir. With such a delicate balance, any disruption to the island’s water cycle can have far-reaching consequences.

Source: Flickr/Jason Webber

The island’s water supply faces a triple threat: prolonged droughts, contamination from jet fuel leaks and PFAS chemical spills, and the ever-increasing demand from locals and tourists alike. As Healani Sonoda-Pale, a Native Hawaiian and member of the O’ahu Water Protectors, warns, “We are on the verge of a greater catastrophe.”

The Rainless Skies of Oahu

Rainfall is the lifeblood of any island, and Oahu is no exception. However, the island’s rainfall patterns are far from uniform, with some areas receiving as little as 8 inches per year while others are drenched in up to 400 inches. This disparity in rainfall distribution poses a significant challenge in ensuring an adequate water supply for all residents.

Source: Flickr/Buzz Jackson

Thomas Giambelluca, director of the University of Hawaii at Mānoa Water Resources Research Center, emphasizes the gravity of the situation: “When the rain doesn’t come, we don’t have any second chance, we don’t have any other way to get our water supply. We can’t pipe it from a nearby state.”

The Thirsty Tourist Trap

As tourists flock to Oahu’s sun-drenched beaches and lush landscapes, their presence puts an additional strain on the island’s already limited water resources. The recent opening of the world’s largest surfing wave pool, filled with precious freshwater, has sparked outrage among locals who see it as a blatant commodification of a vital resource.

Source: I Love Hawaii Vacation

“They’re not using it to drink or to support life, they’re using it to make money,” Sonoda-Pale laments. The delicate balance between tourism and sustainability hangs in the balance as Oahu grapples with its water crisis.

The Ticking Climate Clock

As global temperatures continue to rise, Oahu’s water woes are set to worsen. State climatologist Pao-Shin Chu warns that “Hawaii is getting drier and drier, particularly since the 1980s.” Longer dry spells and more intense rainfall events are becoming the norm, making it increasingly difficult to maintain a stable water supply.

Source: Flickr/Dejan Krsmanovic

Rising sea levels pose another threat, as they can infiltrate the underground freshwater system, pushing precious resources out and contaminating wells. Giambelluca cautions, “It’s already affecting those water systems. There’s no question that climate change is going to make problems caused by other factors worse.”

Farming on the Brink

For Anthony Deluze, a taro farmer on Oahu, the water crisis is not a distant threat but a daily reality. Taro, a sacred staple in Native Hawaiian culture, requires abundant freshwater to thrive. However, in recent years, Deluze has witnessed a dramatic drop in the water table, leaving him with a mere fraction of the water needed to maintain his crops.

Source: Flickr/Extra Medium

“A healthy lo’i [water taro] system needs about 250,000 gallons per day per acre for it to be healthy,” Deleuze explains. “We were probably getting, in the summertime, about 35,000 per day. And if we’re lucky, maybe about 40- to 45,000 in the wintertime, per day. And this is three acres, so we’re not even hitting a fraction of what we need.”

The Specter of Contamination

Compounding the water scarcity issue is the threat of contamination from nearby military installations. In November 2021, a jet fuel leak at the Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility contaminated the base’s water system, sickening thousands of military families and locals. The Board of Water Supply had to shut down three wells that supply water to the island, as the aquifer sits just below the facility.

Source: Flickr/geoff

A year later, the same facility experienced another leak, this time of AF, a fire suppressant containing PFAS, or “forever chemicals.” Deleuze’s farm, situated across the highway from Pearl Harbor, is directly affected by these incidents. “We can’t farm with fuel; we can’t live, period,” he laments.

The Ripple Effect

The water crisis on Oahu has far-reaching implications that extend beyond the island’s shores. As Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawai’i, warns, “If we lose our water, every aspect of life will be impacted and upended. Not just for the next few years, but for the next few generations.”

Source: Flickr/Jeff Reid

The consequences of inaction are dire, and the time to address the crisis is running out. Tanaka emphasizes the urgency of the situation, stating that if the reasons for the crisis aren’t addressed soon, “We may come to a point where we have to decide … who gets water and who doesn’t.”

The Quest for Solutions

As Oahu stares down the barrel of a looming water catastrophe, the search for solutions becomes increasingly urgent. Desalination, the process of converting seawater into freshwater, has been proposed as a potential remedy. However, Giambelluca cautions that desalination is energy-intensive and would go against Hawaii’s goals of reducing dependency on fossil fuels and lowering emissions.

Source: Flickr/KAUST Official

Other potential solutions include improved water conservation measures, investments in infrastructure to reduce leaks and waste, and a more equitable distribution of water resources among residents, farmers, and the tourism industry. However, implementing these changes will require a concerted effort from all stakeholders and a willingness to prioritize long-term sustainability over short-term gains.

The Voice of the People

As the water crisis deepens, the people of Oahu are raising their voices in a collective call for action. Community groups like the O’ahu Water Protectors are at the forefront of the fight, advocating for the protection of the island’s precious water resources and the rights of Native Hawaiians who have stewarded the land for generations.

Source: Flickr/U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii

Sonoda-Pale’s words ring with a sense of urgency and determination: “We are in a water crisis, that has to be made very clear. We are on the verge of a greater catastrophe.” The message is clear: the time for action is now, and the stakes could not be higher.

The Responsibility of the Military

The military’s role in the water crisis cannot be overlooked, as the Red Hill fuel leaks and PFAS contamination have had a devastating impact on Oahu’s water supply. The Department of Defense has a responsibility to clean up the contamination and ensure that such incidents do not happen again in the future.

Source: Flickr/West Point – The U.S. Military Academy

The closure of the Red Hill facility is a crucial first step, but the military must also invest in modernizing its infrastructure and implementing more stringent safety protocols to prevent future leaks and spills. Transparency and accountability will be key in rebuilding trust with the local community and demonstrating a commitment to environmental stewardship.

The Path Forward

Addressing Oahu’s water crisis will require a multi-faceted approach that involves collaboration between government agencies, community organizations, the military, and the private sector. It will also require a fundamental shift in how we view and value water as a resource, recognizing that it is not an infinite commodity to be exploited but a precious gift to be cherished and protected.

Source: Flickr/Jasperdo

The path forward will not be easy, but it is a journey that must be undertaken if Oahu is to avoid the catastrophic consequences of a water shortage. It will require sacrifices, hard choices, and a willingness to prioritize the greater good over individual interests. But as the saying goes, “ola i ka wai” – water is life, and the future of Oahu depends on our ability to protect and preserve this most precious resource.

A Call to Action

The water crisis in Oahu is not just a local issue; it is a global warning of the challenges we face in a rapidly changing climate. As the world watches, the people of Oahu have an opportunity to lead by example, showing that it is possible to balance the needs of a growing population with the imperative of environmental sustainability.

Source: Flickr/Pet_r

But this is not a task that can be left to others. Every individual has a role to play in conserving water, advocating for change, and holding those in power accountable. Whether it is by taking shorter showers, fixing leaky faucets, or speaking out against the commodification of water, each action, no matter how small, can make a difference.

The Legacy We Leave

As we grapple with the water crisis in Oahu, we must remember that the decisions we make today will have consequences that echo far into the future. The legacy we leave for future generations will be determined by our willingness to act with courage, compassion, and foresight in the face of this existential challenge.

Source: Flickr/J.L. Ramsaur Photography

We have a choice: to continue down the path of unsustainable consumption and environmental degradation or to chart a new course that prioritizes the health and well-being of both people and the planet. The story of Oahu’s water crisis is still being written, and it is up to us to determine how it will end.

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Matty Jacobson

Written by Matty Jacobson

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