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Q&A with Dana Okano on the launch of the Hawaiian Islands Environmental Finance Center

In January 2024, the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation announced the official launch of the Hawaiian Islands Environmental Finance Center (HIEFC), to help nonprofits, community groups, and government agencies across the state access federal funding for infrastructure projects that will help in achieving the Fresh Water Initiative goals of improving long-term water security through conservation, reuse, and recharge. To learn more about this important milestone, we sat down with Dana Okano, director of the HIEFC, who shared with us the essentials of how this new finance center will work, and what she hopes it can accomplish.

Dana Okano headshot

Q: If you had to explain the Hawaiian Islands Environmental Finance Center (HIEFC) to someone not familiar with it, how would you describe what it is and how it works?

Dana Okano: Right now, the EPA is in charge of $50 billion in funding that it needs to distribute to regions across the U.S. over the next five years. The challenge is that applying for federal funding can be a tricky, obscure, and laborious process, which can put a bottleneck on how much money the EPA can get out there.

To help with this bottleneck, environmental finance centers (EFCs) are designed to provide various types of technical assistance to agencies, utilities, and communities working on projects related to EPA funding. Basically helping them apply for the money that’s available. Because EPA applications are so technical, most of those EFCs have been housed in universities.

Q: How did the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation get an opportunity to apply to be an EFC?

DO: When the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021, with all of this additional funding that needs to be distributed, the EPA realized it would have to ramp up the amount of technical assistance that’s going out to communities, and increase the number of environmental finance centers across its regions. So it put out a call for applicants.

At this point, we at HCF were already having tough conversations about the reality of what it will take to achieve the goals of the Fresh Water Initiative. Over the last 11 years, we’ve been able to do a lot of good policy work and develop important partnerships, but achieving our program goals largely requires big infrastructure projects, and big infrastructure projects take a significant amount of money.

The water utilities on the neighbor islands, where the population is lower, get their income from their customer base, and they’re not bringing in a lot of money. It’s challenging enough to maintain the existing infrastructure, much less try to do new, innovative things to build in the resilience we’re going to need for climate impacts that are here now and increasing.

So we started asking, how do we help get more money into Hawaiʻi for these big infrastructure projects? The answer is federal funding, and so we were already working with the utilities and starting to introduce them to the world of federal funding and how it works. While we were doing that, this opportunity from the EPA came up, and we realized this is work we’re already doing. We applied and fortunately the EPA selected us.

Originally, there were 10 EFCs across the U.S. Now there are 29, and we’re one of 19 that have been added. Usually, only universities get this designation. So this is a big deal, to be recognized at the national level, and to be set up as one of these centers.

Q: How will the HIEFC help to bring federal dollars into Hawaiʻi?

DO: To be clear, the federal EPA dollars are not coming to us or through us. We are helping people find where federal funding is being offered, and apply for those federal dollars. We’ll even do the drafting of a grant request for you, as needed, help you navigate all the legal registrations and verifications that you have to go through, and assist with figuring out the engineering requirements.

Q: What are a couple of examples of infrastructure projects that could be made possible with the support of federal funding?

DO: On Hawaiʻi Island, the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant in Kailua-Kona already needs upgrades and system changes as it is. If the County was interested, we could help them explore funding for the kinds of upgrades that would let the plant recycle wastewater and reuse it for landscaping in the area, so people wouldn’t need to draw potable water for landscaping needs. But to do that kind of upgrade would cost tens of millions of dollars and that’s more than the county can afford, which is where federal funding comes in. The technology exists right now to do a lot of cool things; it’s just that it takes a lot of money.

Another example: We know there are 88,000 cesspools across the state, which can be a big factor contaminating our fresh water sources. Many of our residents don’t have the financial ability to be able to upgrade those cesspools. But a big part of the reason they’re all on cesspools is because there’s no wastewater infrastructure where they are, so they couldn’t connect to the county sewer lines even if they wanted to. So if we can help the counties get federal funding to build out their infrastructure, or even set up decentralized treatment facilities in certain neighborhoods, all of a sudden you’re making a real dent in reducing the number of cesspools. And finally, if a community wants to improve storm water management in their area, there is the option to install a Green Stormwater Infrastructure project. By using or mimicking the natural landscape to handle storm water, these types of projects can slow runoff and allow water to soak into the ground, increasing water recharge.

Q: One of the services listed on the HIEFC website is providing workforce development program support for water resource agencies. How does this tie into your larger mission?

DO: We’ve consistently heard of two big bucket areas of need, from the agencies’ perspectives. One is that they need better qualified candidates. This is why the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) is one of our partners and sub-awardees on this grant. They’re working to align the education, skills and experiences being offered that its graduates can walk right into a job at any of the county or state offices dealing with water.

The second thing we hear all the time is that the agencies just don’t have enough people applying for open positions. There are a lot of reasons for that, and we can’t address them all. But a good starting point is better recruitment and retention practices. Our second partner on this project is the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and we’re working with them to set up and host the Water Workforce Fellowship Program, which will identify high-priority positions that are needed in Hawaiʻi, and recruit and hire for up to 10 of them per year. USDN will provide mentoring and coaching to these fellows, as well as cohort connection and collaboration opportunities. The fellows will also receive equity training and be connected with BIPOC [Black, indigenous, and other people of color] mentors.

Q: Have you already started to work with applicants? How quickly would you say the launch of HIEFC might start translating into federal money coming into Hawaiʻi?

DO: The work has already begun. We did support one organization, the Mauna Kea Watershed Alliance, apply for a grant this past December, and right now we have at least three more in the queue that we’re actively working on.

It’s going to take some time to ramp up. Many of the folks we’re working with are very new to this and may have never gotten federal grants before. The EPA is not going to give these kind of applicants a $100 million grant, right off the bat. But they might award $100,000 to do some initial planning work. Once that’s done, then you could apply for a grant for $300,000 to do the engineering design work. And if that gets approved, now you can start applying for multi-million-dollar grants to fund the actual infrastructure and construction. It can be a real stepping-stone kind of situation.

Will this be a magic bullet for solving Hawaiʻi’s freshwater issues? Of course not. These are huge systems we’re trying to change here. And we’re chipping away at one piece. But I see that as an opportunity because the launch of the HIEFC means everyone can come and play in this space. And we’re here, ready to help.

To learn more about the Hawaiian Islands Environmental Finance Center, visit hawaiianislandsefc.org.

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