Category Archives: Water

Checking in with UH Geologist on the Aquifer

There’s been so much talk about the Big Island’s aquifer lately, with the Thirty Meter Telescope about to start construction on Mauna Kea, that I thought I’d repost this March 2010 blog post.

Spoiler alert: We don’t need to worry. The aquifer is not in any danger.

This post is about research Don Thomas, a geologist and volcanologist at the University of Hawaii has been doing. He’s learned that the island has a tremendous amount of fresh water — much more than we realized in the past.

I asked Don what they’ve learned in the five years since then, and he told me this:

We did start the drilling program and we found high level water in the first test hole. Based on the results of the first hole, the regional water table appears to be standing at an elevation of ~4600′ above sea level in the central Saddle region.  That elevation of the water table is more than adequate to allow fresh water to displace seawater to 10,000′ below sea level (and a good deal deeper if there is adequate permeability in the rocks underlying the island).  That test hole also found that significant water bodies can be present as “perched” aquifers – where low permeability layers can intercept rainfall recharge and hold it at much higher elevations than we had generally assumed. 

My 2010 blog post:


Richard Ha writes:

Don Thomas is a geologist and volcanologist at the UH Manoa and UH Hilo. Talking to him is so interesting; it’s kind of like an Indiana Jones novel. He is quiet and unassuming but the stuff he talks about just blows me away.

One day, he mentioned to me that he was looking for fresh water for the military at Pohakuloa. He told me about this neat instrument that can look down and see the electroconductivity of rock.

He told me that dry rocks have a certain signature and wet rocks a different one. He said that salty wet rocks and hot rocks have signatures that are hard to distinguish from one another. So one could locate heat zones?

Hmmm, I thought—maybe we can find hot geothermal zones?

Don just drops these kinds of info. I had no idea that geology could be so fascinating.

From Don’s email to me:

We’ve always assumed that the understanding of groundwater in Hawaii was pretty well established.  The old timers, the guys I learned from when I was a student at UH, did a really fantastic job at interpreting the geology and groundwater hydrology. But, they didn’t have any data to tell them what was going on deep below sea level.

With our deep borehole, we found that some assumptions that were made about the flow of water below sea level was much different from the assumptions made by the earlier hydrologists.  The most significant finding was that freshwater was found much farther below sea level than anyone had expected.

For water to be that deep, it meant that seawater had to have been forced out by much higher pressure freshwater than was expected.  In order for those pressures to occur, it meant that freshwater was piled up much higher inside Mauna Kea than we had assumed.  To prove that, we’ll need to drill a hole from a much higher elevation – in the Saddle.

But, because drilling is pretty expensive, I teamed up with some folks from the mainland who are experts in a type of measurement that can “look” downward into the ground and determine the electrical resistance of the rocks at various depths below the surface.  Dry rocks are pretty poor electrical conductors; when they get wet with fresh water, they are better conductors; and when they are wet with sea water, they are even more conductive.

That exploration method is pretty expensive itself – but we were able to make measurements at about thirty stations across the Saddle – with the data we were able to collect, we were able to identify a couple of locations where the conductivity of the ground was similar to that of fresh water saturated rock at about 3000′ above sea level.

That doesn’t guarantee that we will find water there – it’s like in the detective stories – the conductivity of the rocks is only “circumstantial evidence” – it’s possible that other geologic conditions are responsible for the conductivity.  The only way we can prove the presence of water at that elevation will be to drill into one of those zones.  But, if there is water there, it will mean that we have a pretty large resource stored inside the island.

It’s also important to realize that another of the findings of the deep hole was that the local conditions – where ever you are on the island – will exert a strong control over where groundwater flows.  So the conditions in Kona, whatever they are, will likewise have an impact on the water.

It’s just a guess, but my guess is that there is a lot more water stored on the Kona side of Mauna Loa than we have generally expected based on the relatively thin groundwater lens found near the coast.  I’d bet that there are buried formations that are controlling groundwater flow – similar to the ones we found in Hilo – that may be forcing fresh water to discharge from that are deep below sea level.  But, again, we don’t the necessary geological data to be able to prove that.

Richard again:

This really captures my imagination. It points out the value of education and science in a very practical way. Combine that with getting HELCO to use geothermal as base power—we can get that water at a reasonable cost.

This article predicts that the wet side of the island will get wetter and the dry side drier. If this is the case, then Don’s efforts could be the basis for solving our long-term problems.

I want the people to know the role Don has played and is still playing for the Big Island people’s benefit!


About the Big Island’s Water Quality

Richard Ha writes:

The State of Hawai‘i tested 24 sites throughout the islands for pesticide residue, and the Big Island tested the lowest. Of all the islands, we had the lowest amount of pesticide residue.

It’s interesting to note that “the USGS laboratory methods used for this study measure compounds at trace levels; commonly 10 to 1,000 times lower than drinking water standards and aquatic life guidelines.”

The document is called the 2013-14 STATE WIDE PESTICIDE SAMPLING PILOT PROJECT WATER QUALITY FINDINGS, A Joint Investigation by the Hawaii State Departments of Health and Agriculture.

From the executive summary (there’s lots more detail within the study itself):

Surface water samples collected from 24 sites statewide were analyzed for a total of 136 different pesticides or breakdown products. All locations had at least one pesticide detection. Only one pesticide, a historically used termiticide exceeded state and federal water regulatory limits. Five other pesticide compounds were detected at levels exceeding the most conservative EPA aquatic life benchmark. All other pesticides detected were lower than the most stringent aquatic or human health guideline value.

These findings represent a snapshot in time from a single sampling event within watersheds with multiple upstream inputs. While they provide useful information about pesticide occurrence across different land uses, they may not be representative of typical conditions or identify specific sources.

Key findings:

  • Every location sampled had a trace detection of one or more pesticides; however, the majority of these represented minute concentrations that fall below state and federal benchmarks for human health and ecosystems.
  • Land use significantly impacted the number and type of pesticides detected. Urban areas on Oahu showed the highest number of different pesticides.
  • Oahu’s urban streams had the highest number of different pesticides detected. Manoa Stream at the University of Hawaii showed 20 different pesticides and breakdown products.
  • Dieldrin, a termite treatment that has been banned from sale in Hawaii since 1980, exceeded State and Federal Water Quality standards in three urban locations on Oahu.
  • Fipronil detected in Manoa Stream and Waialae Iki Stream exceeded aquatic life benchmarks for freshwater invertebrates. Fipronil is an insecticide commonly used in residential settings and applied by commercial pest companies to treat soil for termites.
  • Atrazine and metolachlor, two restricted use herbicides, were detected on Kauai at agricultural sites downstream of seed crop operations. One location had levels that exceed aquatic life guidelines, but remain below regulatory standards.
  • The number of pesticides detected in water samples on Hawaii Island was lower than that of Kauai and Oahu.
  • Atrazine, a restricted use pesticide, was the most commonly found pesticide in the study. Of the sites tested, 80 percent had atrazine detections. Only two sites, one on Kauai, and one on Maui, reflected elevated concentrations suggestive of current use of atrazine. All of the remaining detections were trace level concentrations far below state and federal benchmarks.
  • The pilot study tested stream bed sediment at seven sites and found glyphosate, in all samples. Glyphosate (trade marked as Roundup) is widely used for residential, commercial, agricultural and roadside weed management.

Read the rest


‘Food Prices Soar as Incomes Stand Still’

Richard Ha writes:

Look at this article about what's going on with food producers in California, where they are having a devastating drought.

It is a good reminder that food security is our number one job. We need the help of all our Hawai‘i food producers to keep us food secure here, and we need to work together and support each other in the spirit of aloha. 

We need to recognize that ag and energy, without a shadow of a doubt, are inextricably tied together. 

In its simplest form, sustainability is about cost. We need to choose the lowest cost solution for our energy, which will keep our ag industry going, which will keep the food available and affordable. We need to choose the lowest cost solution because it will take care of all of us.


15 Reasons Why Your Food Prices Are About To Start Soaring

Did you know that the U.S. state that produces the most vegetables is going through the worst drought it has ever experienced and that the size of the total U.S. cattle herd is now the smallest that it has been since 1951?  Just the other day, a CBS News article boldly declared that “food prices soar as incomes stand still“, but the truth is that this is only just the beginning.  If the drought that has been devastating farmers and ranchers out west continues, we are going to see prices for meat, fruits and vegetables soar into the stratosphere.  Already, the federal government has declared portions of 11 states to be “disaster areas”, and California farmers are going to leave half a million acres sitting idle this year because of the extremely dry conditions.

Sadly, experts are telling us that things are probably going to get worse before they get better (if they ever do).  As you will read about below, one expert recently told National Geographic that throughout history it has been quite common for that region of North America to experience severe droughts that last for decades.  In fact, one drought actually lasted for about 200 years.  So there is the possibility that the drought that has begun in the state of California may not end during your entire lifetime….

Read the rest


Video: After The Storm

Richard Ha writes:

What a storm! The house shook with intense thunder and lightning last night. This morning, an eleven-mile stretch of Highway 19 was closed, 20 miles north of us, because of the storm.

During the day today we expect no more than 6 mols/meter square of plant-useful sun energy. Ideally, tomatoes need 25 mols/meter square.

Cloud cover and rain are most associated with low sun energy. This low sun energy applies to PV systems on people’s roofs, too. Leaves are another kind of solar radiation collector.

But even though the sun energy is down, our new hydro generator is at max production.

So, if the sun is bright, the plants smile and so do we. If it’s rainy, we generate more electricity.

Either way, we are happy.

Here’s information on waterflow in nearby Honoli‘i Stream as of this afternoon. It’s from the USGS (click to enlarge).

Screen Shot 2013-12-30 at 8.55.47 PM

Here’s the same information year to date.

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 9.29.51 AM



Energy On The Farm

Richard Ha writes:

We’ve had two days of rain and Wai‘a‘ama Stream is a raging torrent. Incredible amounts of water running down the flume!

In addition to using the water that’s all around us, we utilize the energy of the sun. Because what drives plant growth? Sun energy in a certain range.

Photosynthetically active radiation
From Wikipedia, the free

Photosynthetically active radiation, often abbreviated PAR, designates the spectral range (wave band) of solar radiation from 400 to 700 nanometers that photosynthetic organisms are able to use in the process of photosynthesis….

 Read the rest

We use a sensor that measures the sun energy per meter squared and gives a number for the total accumulated in a day. We keep track of the total.

The sun energy total was low these last two days. This is something we expected, because the river has been raging.

Farmers routinely use scientific information. This is why I say farmers have common sense.


Water, Water Everywhere

Richard Ha writes:

We have so much water flowing to our new hydroelectric system. On average, more than two billion gallons of rain falls out of the sky and onto our farm each year.

We have one area with four acres of overgrown cane so thick you cannot touch the ground unless you hack your way through. The plantations put in a culvert there, at the lowest part of that field, and periodically a significant amount of water flows there.


There is the sound of rushing water coming from somewhere in this patch of cane. This happens every time it rains upslope.

There’s no water flowing at the top of that field, where we have bananas planted. The water is coming from somewhere within that overgrown cane, and we notice that the more rain we have upslope, the louder the sound of the water.

But I just hacked my way 20 feet into that top part of the parcel and I heard the sound of water there, too. I’ll find out what that is in a few days.


I wonder what that looks like? What can we use this land for?

I plan to plant bamboo to line the south side of the water source, which will throw a shadow on the stream and help us access the water.


Civil Beat & Huffington Post Coverage

Honolulu's Civil Beat came to the Big Island and interviewed Richard for this really good article on energy and Hawai‘i – and then today it was picked up by the Huffington Post. Wow. 

From Civil Beat:

Energy Prices Shock Hawaii Farmers Into Alternatives

by Sophie Cocke  8/15/13

HAMAKUA, BIG ISLAND — Lush green fields rise and dip through the rolling hills that stretch down to the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. The verdant surroundings and tropical air suggest this farm could be one of countless others. So does the water that flows past leafy, green taro fields, stalks of corn that sway in the breeze and the sweet potato patch.

But the subtle, steady swooshing of the water signals how this farm is different. The water has been diverted from a mountain stream, down a 150-foot slope and into a small, blue shed where it sends blades spinning to generate electricity.

Yes, Hamakua Springs Country Farms has its own hydroelectric plant.

Farmer Richard Ha borrowed money to install the plant as part of a 19th-century solution to a very 21st century problem: sky-high energy rates….

Read the rest here

There's a short video interview with Richard at the end, too.

- posted by Leslie Lang


State of the Farm Report

Richard Ha writes:

Yesterday at the farm I had a meeting with all our workers. It was an update on where we have been and where we are going.

Where we’ve been

The price of oil has quadrupled in the last 10 years, and those who could pass on the cost did. Those who could not pass on the cost ended up paying more. Farmers are price takers, not price makers, so farmers’ costs increased more than their prices.

Anticipating higher electricity prices, we lobbied for and passed a law that the Department of Agriculture create a new farm loan program that farmers could use for renewable energy purposes. Then we started to design a hydroelectricity program to stabilize our electricity costs.

Where we are today

The hydroelectricity project is within weeks of completion. With the combination of a farm loan and a grant from the Department of Energy, we will stabilize our electricity price at 40 percent less than we pay today.

The pipe that transports the water appears to me like it will last for more than 100 years. After the loan is paid off, our electricity will be practically free for more than 60 years.

Where we are going

We are taking advantage of our resources – free water and stable electricity costs – by working with area farmers to help each other grow more food.

What kind of food? Responding to consumer demand, we want to
produce food with a wide variety of nutritional content, including protein, via aquaculture.

In order to be sustainable, the feed-based protein must be vegetation-based. And since the building block of protein is nitrogen, we are looking for an adequate nitrogen source. Unused, wasted electricity can be used to make ammonia, which is a nitrogen fertilizer and, like a battery, can be used to store energy.

What does the future
look like?

Other than stable electricity, which would help us, our serious
concern is the anti-GMO Bill 79. It seeks to ban any new biotech solutions to farmers’ problems on the Big Island. The result is that the rest of the counties and the nation would be able to use new tools for more successful farming, and the Big Island would not.

What would happen is that Big Island farmers would become
less competitive, which would put even more pressure on those already at the bottom of the pay scale. It would result in higher food costs, making consumers less able to support local farmers.

The folks pushing for the anti-GMO bill have not talked to farmers, and they have no clue that this bill would make Hawai‘i less food
secure. The bottom line is that food security involves farmers farming. If the farmers make money, the farmers will farm. If not, they will quit.


Connecting Our Hydro to the HELCO Grid

Richard Ha writes:

We just received approval to connect our hydro project to HELCO's grid. We could not be happier!

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 8.11.37 AM

We still need to work out the technical details. Normally, the Standard Interconnect does not allow the export of power back to the utility grid.

But we are not trying to get paid for the extra power. We want to save money by avoiding having to pay for special equipment.

The flume runs day and night and will generate twice as much electricity as we use. We want to give the excess to the grid, free-of-charge. Otherwise, it will be wasted – poho.

This event, connecting to the grid, is as momentous as deciding to move our farm to Pepe‘ekeo was many years ago. Plantations were closing down all over the state, and there were many options as for location. We could have moved to Waialua on O‘ahu. It would have been close to the market – O‘ahu.

But we made our final decision based on water. At Pepe‘ekeo, there were three streams and three springs. The water was free and it was going to be free for as long as we could see. 

And now the free water will generate electricity!