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State’s Catchment Policy Hits Vets

According to the 2000 census, there are 16,298 veterans living on Hawaii Island, of which 4,500 are using rainwater catchment systems to satisfy their water needs. Owing to Hawaii’s rural and more natural environment, such catchment systems are common throughout the state. Even on Oahu, the most urban of all the islands, there is a high percentage of systems scattered through both the Koolau and Waianae mountains. I have family members dependent upon catchment water in the Koolaus only a few miles from downtown Honolulu.

For decades, these systems have made countless building sites viable, especially for lower-income families like many of our veterans seeking a new start, but who cannot afford more developed land where water is part of the existing infrastructure. That is, until 2011, when the state Department of Health, for no apparent reason that anyone in the system can explain, arbitrarily changed the existing requirements by declaring rain catchment water non-potable. When properly maintained and tested, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Veterans Administration, which posts four straightforward requirements for a property to qualify for a VA loan (domestic hot water, a continuing supply of safe and potable water, sanitary facilities and a safe method of sewage disposal), immediately declared Hawaii properties dependent upon water catchment unqualified for a VA loan, one of a veteran’s most valuable benefits. Hawaii’s vets have been hung out to dry.

Even though the onus for this screw up is on the state, with its arbitrary declaration that catchment water no longer is considered potable, for the last several months now the state has been trying to get the VA to grant a waiver for Hawaii properties! In pursuit of this backward approach, Gary Gill, the state’s deputy director of Environmental Health Administration (EHA, a separate bureaucracy within the Department of Health), in his August 2012 correspondence to the VA, provides a litany of reasons why his own disqualification of catchment water is so wrongheaded: “Over many decades, thousands of homes in Hawaii have (used catchment systems) with little known incidence of adverse health effects. … The Department is not aware of any water-borne diseases related to catchment systems. … With proper precautions, these systems are capable of meeting safe drinking water standards.”

C’mon, Mr. Gill, read your own darn letter seeking a VA waiver for Hawaii and, for all the reasons that you state, just remove the dumb language you put up on your own website that started this whole mess. The issue here is not who can prevail – the state of Hawaii or the VA – but how do we restore to Hawaii’s vets access to a promised benefit as quickly as possible.

We have here a gross failure of leadership at three levels: 1) the deputy director of the EHA in the state Department of Health who apparently isn’t persuaded by his own letter, 2) the governor, who, if he really has the well-being of Hawaii’s vets at heart as he frequently crows, could simply order the website to be restored to its original text, 3) VA director Eric Shinseki, who, as a Kauai boy should certainly have the straight skinny on water catchment systems, could put an immediate end to this petty posturing.

But wait, there are actually four levels of failed leadership: the president who sets the example for all his underlings in his own party, and he’s the master of petty posturing.