Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New year mission: clean up the water

Hawai'i saw no tsunami or hurricane strikes, but the year 2008 was filled with reminders of our fragility.

(Image: Muddy water on a resort beach, without many visitors swimming.)

The annual year-end tourism bump is tempered by visitors disgusted by muddy water off many of the islands, along with reports of sewage spills in many areas. We count on repeat visitors. Will they be back?

Meanwhile, the economic slump across the world continues to trash the Islands' economy.

Molokai Ranch closed its doors and laid off nearly all its workers. The landline phone company, Hawaiian Telecom, filed for bankruptcy. Norwegian Cruise Lines withdrew all but one ship from the Islands' waters.

One of the two airlines that have dominated Hawai'i skies for most of the last century failed, and a new diversity entered the market, with Hawaiian, Go!, Mokulele and Island Air all providing statewide service.

A single lightning strike knocked out the Honolulu grid for hours, reminding of the risks of a centralized utility grid.

Rainstorms several times flooded homes across the state, and caused repeated sewage spills—a Third World eventuality that just keeps happening.

And what of the future?

There's lots to worry about. We can't deal effectively with all our challenges, but let's suggest one approach.

Today's Wall Street argues for this: Protect your assets.

One big asset, in a state dependent on tourism, and in which many residents use the ocean for recreation and food: clean, blue water.

One significant good-idea initiative: Keep the water clean.


One: Take aggressive measures to reduce soil erosion that turns waters brown with every heavy rain. It's hard work. It may affect flexibility in agriculture and construction operations. But the entire community is damaged by inaction. More attention to this may also reduce the flow of pesticides and nutrients into nearshore waters.

Two: Harden sewage systems to reduce the likelihood of spills to the ocean. The reasons for this are obvious.

Three: Every big rain is accompanied by a pulse of coastal debris, as water bottles, plastic bags, diapers, and other trash wash from the streets into streams and then into the sea. We must enact and enforce effective programs to further cut down illegal dumping and littering, particularly near streams and coastlines. Launch efforts to intercept debris before it gets to the ocean. Keep the trash off the beaches.

It will take a multidisciplinary approach that involves many agencies. Among them, the state Department of Agriculture (ag runoff), county construction inspectors (construction runoff), federal EPA (coastal pollution), Department of Land and Natural Resources (erosion from public forest lands), county wastewater offices (sewage spills), and private property owners.

An argument could be made for some kind of coordinated response, perhaps a statewide water czar with an extraordinary portfolio capable of enforcing action.

©2008 Jan TenBruggencate

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