Oahu gets world's largest surfing wave pool amid water crisis

Oahu, the Hawaiian island known for having some of the best surfing in the world, has a new site on its shoreline — a freshwater pool dubbed the "world's largest deep-water standing surf wave." But the wave pool, filled with water from the fragile aquifer, opened amid an ongoing water crisis, riling up many who say the tourist attraction arrives as locals are suffering.

Wai Kai Commerical Development announced the pool in January 2021 as part of a $40 million recreation hub called The LineUp at WaiKai. The group said it's the "world's largest deep-water standing surf wave" called Wai Kai Wave – measuring 100 feet wide – and that hub also features a 52-acre recreational lagoon that will each be "first-of-its-kind attractions."

The Ewa Beach wave pool holds 1.7 million gallons of fresh water – the amount equivalent to about 2.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools. And the water for it was taken from the aquifer, a resource that's become increasingly fragile on the island as recent and wide-scale water contamination events and environmental issues have strained locals' ability to access fresh water for their basic day-to-day needs.

Shane Beschen Surfing The Wai Kai Wave / Credit: Handout
Shane Beschen Surfing The Wai Kai Wave / Credit: Handout

"Forever chemicals" in wave pool water source

Larry Caster, director of retail development at Wai Kai, told CBS News that the water in the pool is provided by the city and county of Honolulu via the Makakilo Well, which is also used to provide water to residents and businesses in the area. The decision to use this water source, he said, was made "after consulting with scientists and others."

And its use of that well only highlights a major problem that has been plaguing the island's freshwater system: PFAS.

Also known as "forever chemicals," per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are human-made chemicals that take a significantly long period of time to break down and are found in many areas of daily life, allowing them to easily build up in the body and the environment.

These contaminants have been making headlines in Hawaii after it was discovered that about 1,100 gallons of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) were released from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam's Red Hill Bulk Storage Facility in November 2022, releasing excessive levels of PFAS into the surrounding area. That same storage facility, situated less than 20 miles away, is also the site of a massive jet fuel leak in 2021.

In February, the state's Department of Health announced that the Makakilo Well was found to have at least one of the thousands of types of these chemicals in its water – Perfluoropentanoic acid (PFPeA). This substance, the DOH said, is "not a regulated drinking water contaminant" and is one of several "PFAS of concern" that's been found widespread in the environment and requires further study.

PFAS detections in drinking water reported to the Hawaii Department of Health as of February 24, 2023. / Credit: Hawaii Department of Health
PFAS detections in drinking water reported to the Hawaii Department of Health as of February 24, 2023. / Credit: Hawaii Department of Health

They did say that the amount of the contaminant found in the well was "well below" environmental action level standards, but those standards are set by the state and the chemical was not included in the EPA's recent proposal for a first-ever national limit on PFAS in drinking water.

"Although long-term consumption of drinking water with PFAS could be a health risk, the low levels of PFAS in the Ewa-Waianae water system are not an acute health threat," the Department of Health said in February. "No immediate action is necessary for the system's users. However, those concerned may use a home filtration option to reduce PFAS."

A spokesperson for The LineUp told CBS News that the wave pool operates under the same rules as swimming pools in Hawaii and as such, is "regularly tested and treated as required by the Hawaii State Department of Health."

They have not yet responded to CBS News' request about the last testing date and the PFAS levels recorded.

"A sore spot for our community"

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which has voiced significant concern about the island's water issues, approved the opening of Wai Kai Wave – but not without pause.

Ernest Lau, manager and chief engineer of the Board of Water Supply, told CBS News that the wave pool's opening is "unfortunate," but those in charge of the site had a long-standing water meter and the board doesn't have policies that say pools such as this are not allowed.

"The wave pool, that's a sore spot for our community," he said. "And we're learning from that."

With nearly 1 million people who reside on the island of Oahu and millions more who visit every year, conserving fresh water is crucial.

"As an island state, Hawaii has limited access to natural fresh water supplies," the state's Commission on Water Resource Management says on its website. "Competition for fresh water, increasing population and development pressures, the rising awareness of environmental water needs, and the impacts of global climate change require that Hawaii become as efficient as possible in its uses of limited fresh water supplies."

The island has long struggled with droughts, and in recent years has seen "severe" circumstances, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Although not currently in such conditions, 47% of the state's streamflow sites are below normal, according to the USGS.

Lau told CBS News the wave pool is no exception to water conservation efforts.

"It is going to use a lot of fresh water to fill the pool. And every five years, they're going to have to change that water in the pool, so it is a large use of fresh water periodically," Lau said, adding that developers told him using seawater or recycled wastewater instead "was not an option they really could handle."

The Board of Water Supply has urged the developers to "practice good water conservation," Lau said, but ultimately the decision to do so is "up to them."

But should there be a shortage and the board imposes water restrictions, wave pool operators "would also have to cut back on their usage like everybody else," Lau said.

The LineUp developers do have a number of sustainability efforts they have or plan to implement, including plans to become a Sustainable Tourism and Outdoors Kit for Evaluation (STOKE)-certified surf park. Caster said they will also donate money to water and marine life restoration programs and will not allow single-use plastics on the property.

But for local resident and water rights activist Healani Sonoda-Pale, the opening of the wave pool is "insanity."

"They're opening the largest wave pool on the island of Oahu in a water crisis," she told CBS News. "...They're 100 feet away from families who don't have access to clean drinking water. And there you see the dichotomy of the haves and the have-nots of how industry will continue, despite the fact that their neighbors are suffering."

In the nearby residential area Kapilina Beach Homes, residents there have experienced water contamination issues since jet fuel leaked into the water system from Red Hill in 2021. As of November, many people there – which is about 5 miles from The LineUp – were still reporting signs of contamination, according to local reports, and volunteers continue to distribute bottled water at the homes every month.

"It's right next to a surf spot. It's not needed," Sonoda-Pale said of The LineUp. "It's a waste of clean drinking water and it's all serving the tourist industry."

Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, told CBS News the wave pool is a "bizarre arrangement."

"Using potable water in the middle of a water crisis to support this profit-seeking enterprise is just yet another example of where Western assumptions and priorities have really overtaken the understanding that water is a precious and finite resource," Tanaka said, "and that we have to protect it and use it for the benefit of all and not just treat it as a commodity."

When asked about the criticism the wave pool is facing, Caster said those in charge of the site are aware of the "questions and confusion" about the water usage. He said that the daily demand for water will be limited to what needs to be refilled with evaporation.

"Many of our neighbors are very excited about the opening and look forward to experiencing the outdoor recreation, new restaurants, waterfront promenade and more," he said, adding that they will seek ways to conserve water and implement "best management practices wherever we can."

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