The NSF EPSCoR ‘Ike Wai project brings science, education and community together to ensure Hawai’i’s freshwater future
This is the first in a series of articles about the ‘Ike Wai project by Burt Lum. Each monthly article will explore a different aspect of the project and an ongoing story of ‘Ike Wai. Burt is getting the word out about ‘Ike Wai on social media. Follow us on facebook and instagram @hawaiiepscor.
By Burt Lum
Growing up in Hawai‘i, I was amazed to learn that much of our freshwater comes from aquifers deep underground. Our volcanic geology makes for an intricate and complex catchment system. The journey starts as the trade winds blow and clouds are forced up into the cooler atmosphere by high mountain ranges where their moisture begins to condense. This water falls on the islands in the form of rain and misty clouds before slowly percolating through the island’s subsurface geology, finally helping to recharge the island’s freshwater aquifers. This freshwater becomes Hawai‘i’s primary source of drinking water.
In the months, and years, to come, I will have the distinct honor of helping tell this age old story of water through the lens of some 21st century science and technology. Back in May 2016, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the University of Hawai‘i a 5-year, $20M grant to study the freshwater aquifer in recognition of this critical natural resource.
The grant is part of the NSF EPSCoR program or Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research whose mission is to to advance excellence in science and engineering research and education. One of its primary goals is “to advance science and engineering capabilities in EPSCoR jurisdictions for discovery, innovation and overall knowledge-based prosperity.”
‘Ike Wai, the name embraced by the Hawai‘i EPSCoR team, is derived from the Hawaiian word for knowledge (‘ike) and freshwater (wai) or the Knowledge of Water.
The water cycle of the islands seems straightforward, but once the water moves from the surface to the subsurface its path to the aquifer can be complex. Subsurface geologic structures are a complex network of porous volcanic rock, impervious caprock and vertical dikes that restrict the flow of water. The existence of these structures are inferred by the variability of water elevation in wells however not much is known about the spatial boundaries of these structures and how they affect the flow of groundwater. Even less is known about how water may move from one aquifer to another in response to high rainfall events or increased pumping of wells for our local water supply. For example the Pearl Harbor Aquifer services 60% of the population of Oahu and is threatened by the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Adjacent to the Pearl Harbor Aquifer is the Honolulu Aquifer. Little is known how these two aquifers affect each other and whether water flows from one aquifer to another.
Through the ‘Ike Wai project, scientists will apply the field sensor data and the latest geophysical tools to help refine existing models of these aquifers, but that is just the start.
The two study areas include the Pearl Harbor Aquifer on O‘ahu and the Hualalai Aquifer on Hawai‘i Island. The project consists of a team of scientists, economists, educators as well as stakeholders in the community that will come together as a multidisciplinary collaboration between members from the University of Hawai‘i School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, Hawai‘i Institute for Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP), Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, the UH Economic Research Organization (UHERO), Dept. of Information and Computer Science and the Water Resources Research Center.
According to Gwen Jacobs, Principal Investigator for the project, “The study of the freshwater aquifer is critically important for Hawai‘i. With this project we will take a collaborative approach for our four broad goals, science & research, community engagement, decision support and education & workforce development.”
One of the goals is to map geologic structures and produce 3D models of the groundwater distribution of the aquifer. The plan involves the deployment of a network of sensors that will provide real time monitoring of water conditions in designated wells. Sensors will monitor temperature, salinity, organics, turbidity and flow-rate. These data will form the basis for a “big picture view” of aquifer analysis. With an understanding of the physical characteristics of adjoining aquifers and the modeling of water flow between and through the aquifer, decision makers will be equipped with better tools to manage the long term sustainability of Hawai‘i’s freshwater resources.
The resulting decision support platform will house the data and analysis from this project as well as the visualization tools to aid community stakeholders in a collaborative environment. Key to this capability are the advanced technologies including the University of Hawai‘i’s high performance computing resources, the Laboratory for Advanced Visualizations and Applications (LAVA) and the CyberCANOE – the Cyber-Infrastructure Enabled Collaborative Analysis Navigation and Observation Environment.
A key to the success of the ‘Ike Wai project is building active collaborations with other agencies and organizations that study Hawai‘i’s freshwater. Work to understand Hawai‘i’s freshwater has been going on for decades and the aim with ‘Ike Wai is to engage stakeholders to identify the gaps and provide new techniques and models to help fill those gaps. This will require a close working relationship at the Federal level with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). At the State and County level the team is working with the Hawai‘i Department of Health, Commission on Water Resource Management (Dept of Land and Natural Resources), Honolulu Board of Water Supply and the Hawai‘i County Department of Water Supply.
While this research is funded for 5 years, the long lasting impact of ‘Ike Wai will come through education and workforce development. As a result of this 5-year project both UH Mānoa and UH Hilo will develop new programs and add new faculty with the goal of creating the next generation of water-workforce including geologists, hydrologists, computer specialists and modelers, and natural resource economists and managers. UH Mānoa has plans to create three tenure-track faculty positions: a hydro-geophysicist, within the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP), a hydro-engineer, with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a water economist, within the Social Sciences Research Institute.
At UH Hilo, the EPSCoR project will help to establish a new Data Science program with four new tenure-track faculty positions in Computer Science, Mathematics, Social Science and Natural Science. This will lead to new degree programs in Data Science and Data Analytics.
Understanding Hawai‘i’s freshwater resource will benefit all the people in the State but the investment in this project will go a long way towards creating a pathway for science and research that can be applied beyond Hawai‘i to other Pacific Island nations. It also aims to develop a continuous flow of our next generation professionals, the knowledge base and tools for future decision making.
“I’m excited that we can build a software platform and a data repository that is not only in use by researchers at UH but also becomes a knowledge resource for our agency partners,” said Jacobs. “When we look back on this project I’d like to say we’ve seeded a new research area that is the catalyst to fund more research opportunities in this area to further benefit Hawai‘i and the Pacific.”
There are many facets to this complex story from big data visualizations, scientific and community collaborations to understanding the native Hawaiian cultural knowledge of freshwater. You will find a regular monthly posting of articles here on the Hawaii EPSCoR website and you can also follow this journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Please join me as we explore ‘Ike Wai the Knowledge of Water.