The city and state have signed an agreement outlining a funding plan and path forward for working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to establish flood control measures along the Ala Wai Watershed, but the $345 million project now faces a new challenge from a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Protect Our Ala Wai Watersheds, a recently formed community group of mostly Palolo and Manoa residents, seeks to stop the city and state from initiating the controversial Ala Wai Flood Risk Management Project.
The Corp of Engineers project — to be managed by the city with some funding from the state — is intended to lessen flood risks. A wall would be built around the canal and huge flood-control structures would be put in the upper reaches of the watershed to protect Waikiki and several other Oahu neighborhoods from flooding.
As part of the memorandum of agreement, the state will provide $125 million that is required to receive some $220 million in federal matching funds for the project. In a 5-3 vote the Honolulu City Council on Aug. 21 gave Mayor Kirk Caldwell permission to begin negotiating with the state on the memorandum of agreement. The agreement is key in order for the Corps of Engineers to execute a partnership agreement with the city as project sponsor responsible for maintaining watershed improvements.
Honolulu Attorney David Frankel, who filed the lawsuit in First Circuit Court, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that “city and state officials have committed funding for this project without the benefit of the information that an environmental impact statement prepared under state law would provide.
“This lawsuit is attempting to stop them from taking certain actions which would further commit state funding for the project until the environmental disclosure processes are properly completed.”
Frankel said he intends to seek a temporary restraining order by the end of the week asking a judge to stop the state from signing an agreement that commits money to the city, and stop the issuance of certificates of participation and bonds.
While the federal government accepted the project’s final environmental impact statement in 2017, Frankel said the state has yet to accept a final impact statement.
“In the meantime, a lot of new data and modeling has come up and there have been changes to the design. Whatever the feds did back in 2017 is out of date,” he said. “The detention basins are a big concern because of their effect on the ecology — they are ugly and huge and would completely destroy the character of the streams. Some residents are concerned about catastrophic failure of these earthen dams. Another significant concern is that this wall that is proposed along the Ala Wai Canal would block any view of the canal from the roadways.”
Jeff Herzog, the corps’ Ala Wai Flood Risk Management project manager, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But said the corps appreciates and respects the effort that has been put forward by the city and state.
“We are still negotiating the (project partnership agreement) for execution with the City and County of Honolulu, this (memorandum of agreement) is a key piece of that effort,” Herzog said.
In the meantime, Herzog said the corps will “continue to refine data and make recommendations to our leadership for how to deliver a project that protects the community, infrastructure and economy in Honolulu.”
Waikiki Neighborhood Board Chairman Bob Finley said he was happy to hear that the memorandum of agreement had been signed, but based on community dissension had anticipated a lawsuit.
“I’m not sure where we go from here, but I’m hoping that we can resolve this quickly,” Finley said. “We don’t know what we can do about global warming, but this is a step in the right direction to prevent damage to Waikiki in the event of a mega storm. We’ve had some close calls in the past.”
Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Jeff Merz, who is an urban planner, said he’d like to see the project move forward “with a nod to valid concerns from people in the entire watershed.”
“The corps has already said that they will meet with people and entertain additional ideas throughout the process. They haven’t broken ground yet. Instead of pursuing a lawsuit, I’d rather that people meet with the corps,” Merz said. “To me that’s a better compromise instead of tying this up in our over-burdened court system where it can become another rail project — behind schedule and over budget.”
But Sidney Lynch, president of the Protect Our Ala Wai Watersheds, said “Many people feel it is useless to talk to Army Corps at this point and that Army Corps is just doing ‘window dressing.’”
Lynch said there’s been no indication that officials would consider making major changes such as: restoring the ecosystem, cleaning up canals, exchanging flood gate and pumps for the proposed detention ponds and wall, allowing the Ala Moana golf course to be used as a major wetlands detention basin, capturing rainwater runoff in valleys and using building materials with more permeable surfaces.
Lynch added that she’s appalled that even after the state Legislature refused to fund the project earlier in the year that Caldwell and Gov. David Ige would sign a memorandum of agreement, which in her opinion circumvents the democratic process.
Honolulu City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine expressed similar concerns on Aug. 21 when she voted against a resolution to allow Caldwell to accept state funding for the project.
“I just heard from the mayor that we are going to completely do away with the democratic process by bypassing the state Legislature. Now the governor, I hear, is going to be like a dictator and just say you know, ‘Forget your democratic process. I’m taking the taxpayers’ money, and I’m going sign a piece of paper that obligates the taxpayer.’”
Honolulu city Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi said seven neighborhood boards have opposed the project and she’s heard concerns from five schools and plenty of constituents. Kobayashi said that’s why she joined with Council members Carol Fukunaga and Tommy Waters to form a permitted interaction group that could meet with the community to try and find a solution.
Kobayashi said she hopes the group’s work, which includes a contract with engineering consultants Oceanit to find solutions, will help bring about a corps plan that doesn’t “condemn private land and flood schools and parks.”
“The permitted interaction group and the community aren’t against protecting Waikiki, we just don’t want to do it at the expense of private property up in the valley and at the expense of schools and parks. And, we don’t want to put up a 4-foot wall along the Ala Wai Canal,” she said.
Kobayashi said the permitted interaction group doesn’t want to lose federal money and wants to move the project along, but wants to include the community in the process.
“Let’s hope we can all work together and work this out so our dollars aren’t eaten up by the lawsuit,” she said.