Cover Story

Eight ways of looking at the export of Hawai‘i’s wai puna

In the midst of this drought summer, Hawaiian Springs, a local company, announced that its bottled water is now being sold in The Fresh Market grocery chain’s 119 stores in 24 states (not including Hawaii). This brings to more than 3,000 the number of retail outlets for Hawaiian Springs “outside of its home in Hawaii, as well as in grocery stores in Canada and Asia,” the company cheered in a press release.

Which led us to wonder: With the state’s population growing (by 12.3 percent in the 2010 Census), and the world adding another billion people every 13.5 years, at what point will Hawaii’s limited water supply struggle to match growing demand? In the long run, can we afford to allow the export of our water in bottles?

Bottled water: On its upside, it’s portable, convenient, and a no-calorie answer to thirst for an overweight society. Moreover, local water bottlers, such as Hawaiian Springs, provide local jobs, tax revenue to the government, and money to community charities while relying on Puna’s abundant rainforest aquifer.

Nonetheless, producing water as an export crop from islands caught in a long-term drought presents a seriously tilted picture of capitalism. Following are eight ways of looking at this picture.

1. Dry facts:

The August 14, 2012 USGS Drought Monitor shows 54 percent of Hawaii firmly in the grip of what it describes as “severe to extreme drought,” up from 39 percent a year ago. 80 percent of Hawaii presently sits in the grip of some form of drought or rain shortfall.

Dry predictions: the August, 2012 United States Weather Service Climate Prediction Center report says, “drier than normal conditions are expected for Hawaii and U.S. affiliated islands during the winter.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) agrees, predicting that warmer Pacific Ocean surface waters will trigger an El Nino condition (+ 0.5 degrees Centigrade or higher), with diminishing rainfall, starting as early as this month.

Bill Tam, Deputy Director of Hawaii’s Commission on Water Resources Management (CWRM), says, “Keep your eye on aquifer recharge. USGS hydrologists are developing new, substantially more sophisticated ways of measuring sustainable yield in the Pearl Harbor aquifer,” the source of more than half of Oahu’s fresh water. “CWRM projects that island-wide groundwater withdrawals will increase from an estimated 164 million gallons per day [mgd] in 2012 to 206 [mgd] in 2030, a rise of about 26 percent,” says a 2008 CWRM report. Meanwhile, county water authorities see no reason yet to mandate any water cutbacks.

Question: Given intensifying global warming and a possible extended statewide drought, may drought-ridden parts of the state eventually need to draw on areas with abundant natural water storage, such as Puna?

2. Draining abroad:

Overseas water sales may mean more dollars for Hawaii, but perhaps only until a foreign company buys local water bottlers and takes profits elsewhere.

Five firms already sell Natural Energy Laboratory Hawaii Authority’s (NELHA’s) desalinated sea water in bottles in Japan, one at 80,000 bottles a day. No supply problem there. Sea water transforms into yen.

With China now the world’s second largest consumer of bottled fresh water, will Hawaii begin shipping bottled fresh water there?

3. Privatization:

The export of Hawaii’s water mirrors an international pattern in which a business buys up local water rights, bottles and exports the water, and raises local water prices. In response to a Sydney company’s tapping its water to bottle and resell to residents at far higher prices, Bundanoon, Australia in 2009 became the first town in the world to ban the sale of bottled water.

4. Withering crops:

Thirteen percent of the world’s seven billion people lack access to clean fresh water. As drought sends more areas globally into serious water shortages, e.g. the historic drought now dramatically shrinking the continental U.S. corn and soybean crops, and the drought killing off agriculture in Northern China, global warming sharply reduces grain and meat yields, propelling global food prices sharply upward. Drought on this kind of scale means starvation and hardship for the world’s have-nots and increasing strife over who receives dwindling food supplies.

With shortfalls of island rain presently impacting everything from beef on the hoof to vegetables in the ground, ranchers and farmers hoping to increase Hawaii’s food self-sufficiency keep anxious eyes on the sky. Hawaii imports 92 percent of its food. At what point might water to increase local food and biofuels production compete for supply with Hawaii’s rising bottled water exports?

Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, reports that the average American uses 99 gallons of water a day, much of it on the yard. Dry Las Vegas pays homeowners $40,000 an acre to replace grass and greenery with desert plants, and xeriscaped yards, finding it far less costly than trying to import more water.

5. Municipal runoff:

‘Oahu raises household water prices 9.6 percent a year (doubling water prices in 7.5 years), and sewage prices 18 percenta year (doubling prices in 4 years). Failure by two generations of city officials to maintain and upgrade ‘Oahu’s 2000-plus miles of water pipes leaves us losing massive amounts of water to leaks, then scrambling to repair 300-plus annual pipeline collapses.

According to Fishman, America’s municipalities typically lose one gallon out of six in underground leakage and water line breaks. On an annual basis, a one-sixth water loss would mean a city is losing two months’ worth of water every year. With the election looming, which mayoral candidate do you feel will do the best job of repairing and maintaining Honolulu’s water lines?

In addition to an estimated $3 billion to repair Honolulu’s aged water mains, sewer repairs will cost $4.7 billion, which, with rail costs added, may well put the City and County of Honolulu in line for possible bankruptcy.

6. Toilet-to-tap:

Scientists estimate the age of earthly water at roughly 4.65 billion years, your next bottle of water perhaps having passed through and given life to dinosaurs, plumeria trees, ants, segmented worms, trout, giant squid, sugar cane, plus you and me. In a way, each form of life is a container of water.

‘Oahu’s Sand Island Sewage Treatment facility puts some 140 to 160 million gallons a day into the sea. An expensive upgrade of sewage treatment to third stage would let Honolulu reclaim all of that waste water as potable.

It’s already being done, and drunk, in Orange County, San Diego and parts of Los Angeles, Cali., as well as El Paso, Texas. Oh, and Singapore.

Instead of adding chemicals, the newest technology relies more on filtering and re-filtering, on the model of the services that wetlands, and lava rock, have performed for millennia in purifying our drinking water.

7. The state’s kuleana:

Section 7, Article XI of the Hawaii State Constitution says that:

“The State has an obligation to protect, control and regulate the use of Hawaii’s water resources for the benefit of its people. The legislature shall provide for a water resources agency which . . . shall set overall water conservation, quality and use policies . . . protect ground and surface water resources, watersheds and natural stream environments . . .”

8. Global warming and waste:

According to the EarthPolicy Institute, making 28 billion plastic bottles a year for U.S. consumers takes 17 million barrels of oil. Add the energy to package, ship and refrigerate bottled water, and the tab mounts to 50 million barrels. More tons of CO2 enter the atmosphere and drive up global warming, raising water demand. Then Americans throw away 80 percent of the plastic bottles they use. Hawaii Volcanoes, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks have all recently stopped selling disposable plastic water bottles. Zion has cut its waste stream by 5,000 pounds annually. The University of Maryland recently banned the sale of bottled water at all of its public events.

At what point does drinking bottled water create enough pangs of conscience to take you back to the water tap to refill your permanent portable container?

Sources of Hawaii bottled waters

Hawaiian Isles Water Company: Purified water from Halawa Shaft, which pumps via deep wells from a natural aquifer beneath ‘Oahu

Hawaiian Springs: Artesian well in Kea’au at base of Mauna Loa, Big Island

Menehune Water: Fresh spring from Halawa Valley on Oahu

MaHaLo Hawaii Deep Sea: Filtered deep seawater 3,000 feet below ocean’s surface off Big Island

Hawaii Deep Blue: Filtered deep sea water 3,000 feet below ocean’s surface off Kona coast

Kona Deep: Filtered deep sea water 3,000 feet below ocean’s surface off Kona coast

–Maria Kanai

Imported Waters

In an apparent irony, environmentally conscious Whole Foods sells no fewer than 17 brands of imported bottled water, plus several island brands, not counting flavored waters. Several brands sell for 10 cents an ounce. Safeway sells half a dozen bottled water brands, including Gerbers water for babies.


In 2002, Alaska Water Exports, Inc. was blocked from tapping springs that would impact the CA environment.

In 2005, Michigan residents sued Nestle for reducing natural stream levels by bottling springwater.

In 2009, Felton, CA had to use eminent domain to recapture control of its water from a private company.