Ulupono Initiative


Keep up to date with Ulupono’s latest updates,
announcements, and press releases.

November 14, 2014

Water as a System

Categories: Food | Energy | Featured | Speech | Waste

Water as a System

Remarks by Kyle Datta, General Partner.  Presented at “Water Studies at UH: Next Generation Possibilities" - Kapiolani Community College, Oahu, Hawaii - November 13, 2014

Aloha and Good Morning to Everyone.

Water is a system that unites and divides us.  The water system encompassed in the hydrological cycle integrates agriculture, energy, urban development, culture, watersheds, and the environment.  This understanding of managing water as a system goes to the very roots of Hawaiian culture.  The Hawaiian creation chant, “Aia I Hea Ka Wai a Kane,” translated means, “Where are the waters of Kane?”  This chant is a series of riddles that reveal the hydrological cycle of these islands.

At Ulupono, our mission is to increase the amount of local food and energy while minimizing waste.  Since we take a systems perspective in our investments, we asked the question, “Do we have enough land and water to achieve our societal goals?”  We commissioned a three-year effort by the Energy Institute of University of Texas, Austin using East Maui as an example of the systems approach.  The findings are profound, not only here, but also nationally:

  • We have already reached the age of peak water. We must take the reality of peak water into account in our future water planning.
  • Climate change is and will continue to reduce the amount of water captured in all islands.  Overall, the state has 6 percent less rainfall already, and this will accelerate as the oceans warm and air currents change.
  • Climate change will accelerate species loss as rainfall shifts and temperature rise increases the range of invasive species.
  • Current course is unsustainable — Maui will run out of water.  Indeed, Oahu faces a similar fate, as both counties mine the groundwater aquifers at an unsustainable rate.

So What Can Be Done?

We start with an understanding of how water is used, and how water, energy and agriculture are closely linked.  82 percent of surface water is used for agriculture, and 11 percent for municipal uses.  Agriculture is the dominant use of water everywhere on earth.

  • The food shed is limited by the watershed.  This insight has national implications since the local food movement has come to grips with its limitations.
  • Energy and water systems are closely linked.  Nearly 25 percent of the energy used on Maui is for pumping, treating or heating of water.  Irrigation timing is flexible and can be used to help integrate more variable renewable wind and solar power onto the system.
  • In much of the US, thermal power plant output depends on fresh water, but not so in Hawaii.  However, how we use regulated energy will greatly impact our contribution to climate change.

What Actions Can We Take Now?

We have to act now, because changes to hydrology can take 20-50 years to achieve their beneficial effect.  You can’t wait for the water crisis to arrive, because then it is too late.

If we applied water efficiency measures for municipal use, less water intensive bioenergy crops like cassava, grass-fed animal husbandry in the right places, and appropriate vegetable crops, and we could:

  • Use one-third [40 percent] less water overall — literally saving more than 3 billion gallons/yr., allowing water to be returned to streams and to recharge our aquifers.
  • Make substantial progress towards local food and energy (all of our milk, two-thirds of our fruits and veggies, 40 percent of our beef, and 40 percent of our fuels, while maintaining or expanding renewable power’s one third share.)
  • Triple the economic value per 1,000 gallons — creating tremendous prosperity.

We know watershed protection and restoration is important, but we do not understand the hydrological cost/benefit, but because of the long latency, need to act while learning.  Invest in both the forest and the science to understand it.

Taking a systems approach to water across energy, food, people, culture and the environment has revealed new opportunities and underscored the importance of acting now.  We know our institutions and laws are not ready for this challenge.  This underscores the importance of bringing together the knowledge within the University of Hawaii to frame the issues so that policy makers have a sound basis for action.

Let me close with another Hawaiian proverb:

Mohala i ka wai ka make a ka pua

Unfolded by the water are the faces of the flowers.

Flowers thrive where there is water, so it is that thriving people are found where living conditions are good.


To read the study, please visit the Maui Water Study page in Resources.