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Merry Wet Christmas for Honolulu BWS

In late November, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply (BWS) approved a Christmas present for itself – a five-year schedule of rate increases that result in the cost of water in Honolulu going up by about 50%.  Two of the increases take place in 2024, one in February and one in July, so Honolulu consumers will be subjected to a double whammy next year.

At the beginning of December, however, the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) appeared to have a Christmas present for BWS.  It said that the Department had “secured” about $75 million, working with the federal EPA, in federal funding that the BWS could use.  The federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, enacted in 2021 as Public Law 117-58, seemed to be mostly about surface transportation such as highways and transit programs, but it also contained funding for dealing with “emerging contaminants,” defined as substances identified as possible drinking water contaminants but that haven’t been studied enough for the federal government to come up with a Maximum Contaminant Level for drinking water supplies.  It turns out that some of the stuff that was found in the Red Hill aquifers fits the definition.  It also turns out that certain other substances specifically addressed in the law, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), were also found in the area from Moanalua to Makakilo.

In a letter to BWS, DOH suggested possible uses for the funding.

First, it noted that BWS completely shut off its Halawa Shaft, “out of an abundance of caution,” to alleviate public concern about safety of the water.  Some of the federal money could be used to build a treatment system so that the Halawa Shaft could be brought back online, restoring 10 million gallons of water per day.  (Considering an average single family household uses about 9000 gallons of water per month, or about 300 gallons a day, that 10 million gallons per day could service over 33,000 households.)

Next, it noted that between 2006 and 2016, BWS spent about $12 million to build a treatment facility for its Ewa Shaft, but that the facility was never brought online after it was built.  (Whoa!  $12 million was spent, the facility was never turned on, and the treatment system was left simply to rust in the last seven years?  I would certainly want to hear the story behind that one, and I think other Honolulu taxpayers would want to hear the story as well.)  DOH suggested that some of the federal money could be used to fix up that facility and turn it on, restoring another 13 million gallons of water per day (which could service over 43,000 average households).

Some folks have criticized the State administration for waiting too long to bring this opportunity for federal dollars to BWS and the City & County administration.  But at least it was brought up, and it seems to have been vetted with the federal EPA as well.  Better late than never!  At least it gives BWS some good reasons to rethink the record-breaking price increases it is getting ready to foist on the general public.

“It is one thing to hustle new and additional spending at any level of government without good reason,” as my predecessor Lowell Kalapa wrote in this column in August 2001, “but it is just plain stupid to let moneys already appropriated slip through our hands, especially if they are federal dollars. . . . If [DOH] officials would pay attention to what they should be doing, they might find that there is money to be had.”  Good job this time, DOH.  Now let’s see if BWS can use the Christmas present that DOH gave it.

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