"The poll suggests that if we aren't aware of the source of our water, it's difficult for us to value and protect it."
Suzanne Case, Hawai'i executive director, The Nature Conservancy
By Suzanne Case
Where does your water come from?
According to a recent national poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy, the vast majority of Americans don't know.
Three quarters of those polled couldn't name the source of the water they use for drinking, bathing and cooking. Many simply thought that their water comes from the tap. Others thought the source was the ocean.
More than half of all respondents had no idea whether their water bill includes money to protect their water source. It does not. With a few exceptions, people don't pay for water; they pay for treatment and delivery through a sophisticated public water system.
The poll illustrates a disturbing disconnect between people and nature. It also suggests that if we aren't aware of the source of the water we rely on, it's difficult for us to value and protect it.
On the mainland, 80 percent of drinking water comes from lakes and rivers. Here in Hawai‘i, basically, our water is pumped up from underground aquifers or harvested from mountain streams.
Our islands lie in a relatively arid part of the Pacific, 2,500 miles from the nearest continental landmass. But freshwater is abundant here, thanks to the convergence of winds upon the islands' forested mountains. As warm ocean air moves inland, it is forced up by the mountainous terrain, cooling and condensing on its forested slopes. The upland forest captures water in the form of mist, fog and rain, absorbing and releasing it into streams and underground aquifers.
On Maui, lush rain forests and streams running from Haleakalā down to the sea provide 60 billion gallons of surface water annually that is the lifeblood of east and central Maui's agricultural, residential and commercial economy.
Likewise, the Ko‘olau Mountains supply O‘ahu residents with 135 billion gallons of water annually, most of it from underground aquifers. For taro farmers in Waiāhole Valley, construction workers from Kalihi, restaurant owners in Chinatown and resort hotels in Waikīkī, that water is vital to their economic well being.
When it comes to the health of the natural systems we rely on, ignorance is not an option. Currently, national public funding for conservation is on the chopping block, with some in Congress—the Hawai‘i delegation excluded—proposing cuts over 85 percent to programs. One of those, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, helps create national, state and local parks, restore our coasts and wetlands, and protect our forests for the many benefits they provide, including fresh water.
Recent congressional action on this year's budget cut this fund by 33 percent. While that is far better than 85 percent, it is still severe, and could get worse as Congress works to reduce the long-term deficit. For Hawai‘i, federal funding to protect 18,000 acres of prime native forest on the Big Island is at risk, opening up the possibility that those lands could be developed or logged.
The recent decision to end congressional earmarks could also impact the state's environment. Earmarks funded a $1.3 million U.S. Department of Agriculture appropriation for brown tree snake control on Guam—money that leveraged an additional $8 million from other federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense and the Interior. Loss of the USDA earmark jeopardizes the operation's ability to provide the base services needed to secure the additional millions that help keep snakes on Guam from getting to Hawai‘i.
Finally, a congressional earmark to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provided $1 million for invasive species control, most of which helped fight weeds and other pests in forested watersheds. That money loss could severely limit those programs, putting our already endangered native forests, and in turn our water supply, further at risk.
Water is the most important product of the forest, but it is not an unlimited resource. Its availability, quality and sustainability are linked to the health of our forested watersheds. When we fail to invest in our forests, and allow our watersheds to degrade, we put our future prosperity and quality of life at risk.
Suzanne Case is the executive director of The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i.