Afterthoughts: Water You Thinking

Why does a reflecting pool have to be so complicated?


Photo: Michael Keany

I Love it when Politicians think big. Even when their ideas are off-the-wall, or maybe especially when they are.  


At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, Rep. Romy Cachola introduced a bill calling for Bellagio-style water fountains in the state Capitol reflecting pool, complete with a choreographed water fountain show, light displays and Hawaiian music.


He says it would be a tourist attraction, and that we’re already spending too much money to clean the existing pool—$100,000 a year, by his estimation. Might as well have some fun with that money, seems to be the gist.


It’s a hilariously terrible idea. There’s a place for flashy light shows and tinny Hawaiian music, and that place is Waikīkī. Cachola’s wacky proposal immediately sparked jokes and derision from the general public, and I fully expect the bill to be dead by the time this March issue hits newsstands.


But Cachola deserves credit for addressing the reflecting pool at all. It’s been an embarrassing problem for almost the Capitol’s entire existence, and lawmakers have been ignoring it for just as long.


In 2003, then-managing-editor A. Kam Napier penned an Afterthoughts in which he compared the Capitol waters with the reflecting pools at Bishop Square, just a couple of blocks away. One was perpetually brown, smelly and full of algae, the other was blue-bottomed, crystal clear and clean enough you wouldn’t mind taking a swim in it.


Why such a stark difference? It’s not for lack of cleaning. Turns out the Capitol pool suffers from a fundamental design flaw: It was constructed to be fed with brackish well water, then stocked with tilapia to nibble at the inevitable algae. As Kam wrote in his Afterthoughts, “It was a Bad Idea from Day One. Scum was the plan.”


The pool has had its ups and downs over the years. After the Capitol was renovated in the early 1990s, the algae-eating tilapia disappeared, leading to a dramatic increase in sludge and stink. Maintenance workers tried to battle the goo with bleach tablets and other heavy-duty chemicals, but that only made the situation worse. The pool smelled rank and looked worse.


More recently, the reflecting-pool work crew has adopted more ecofriendly techniques—nixing the chemicals in favor of more scrubbing and more frequent water recirculation. The pool is in much better shape now.


But it’s still not great. The bottom is still murky, there’s still a hint of funk in the air. And it’s a shame, because the rest of the Capitol is fantastic, especially when compared with all the staid capitol buildings on the Mainland. Its architecture was audacious when it opened in 1969, and remains so today; I never tire of the idea of a building as elegant metaphor for the Hawaiian Islands, with volcanic-cone-shaped legislative chambers, columns that evoke palm trees and a central atrium capped not with a dome, but the blue Hawaiian sky itself.


The reflecting pool completes that Island metaphor, surrounding the Capitol as the Pacific Ocean surrounds us. Would we let the ocean get as scummy as we have the Capitol waters? (OK, don’t answer that.)


So, yes, Cachola is right. We need to fix the Capitol reflecting pool. But we don’t need to overcompensate by turning the place into a Vegas casino. Some people have suggested going in the other direction—digging up the pool entirely, and replacing it with grass. It’d certainly be cheaper, but it would also kill the metaphor.


Let’s take the middle road. Why not replace the outdated, misbegotten brackish-water setup with a modern, tiled, chlorinated one? No geysers, no laser show, just clean, clear water. It’ll take a chunk of cash to rebuild, but we’ll save on maintenance costs in the long run, and the Capitol’s pool will finally be the beautiful symbol it was originally meant to be.




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Honolulu Magazine April 2019
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