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Why Hawaii’s Island Drought Problem Should Scare Everyone

In the shade of the koas, we dig holes in the ground and carefully plant new seedlings of hapuu, hinahina and koa, all native Hawaiian plants. We work on the land of a naturally formed watershed located in the West Maui region at the top of Mauna Kahalawai, also known as the West Maui Mountains.

Mauna Kahalawai provides water for most of Maui, and the forest is critical to the watershed. Trees and plants soak up rainwater like a sponge, filtering it through the earth and into the aquifer, where the Water Supply Department sources water for many homes and hotels in Maui.

But the loss of native trees, due to past cultivation of pineapples in the 8,304 acres of the watershed, has resulted in less rain catchment, reducing the amount of water available for the future.

“It’s life or death,” Kainoa Pestana, a field technician for Puu Kukui Watershed Reserve, says SFGATE. “If we don’t have forest, then we have virtually no life for the west side,” Pestana says.

Water is an urgent problem; Maui County currently has the worse drought conditions in the state. In August, Maui hit seven record temperaturesand in September, the National Weather Service shifted Maui’s Central Valley to “exceptional drought,” the highest category in the drought monitoring system. Water reservoirs are running out, herders are reducing their herds and conditions are expected to continue to deteriorate.

“We have seen a decline in the overall number of rainfall over the past five years,” says Pestana. “Puu Kukui was said to be the second wettest place on Earth. It sometimes reaches over 400 inches of rain in a year. But nowadays sometimes it’s less than 200 inches, which means we get half the rain, and in 25 years we’ll have half the water, which should scare everybody, you know. ?

“We try to keep the forest intact, so we capture as much water as possible when it rains,” he continues. “The fact that the rainfall continues to decline should scare people to death. No rain means no life.

Mauna Kahalawai provides water for most of Maui and is critical to the watershed.

Kainoa Pestana

Puu Kukui Watershed Preserve believes in looking to the past to solve Hawaii’s current problems. It is estimated that Hawaii imports a large part of its resources and up to 85% of his food. Studies have revealed that in 1778 there were 683,000 Native Hawaiians supported by the bounty of the island before their reliance on imports began in the 1960s.

“To feed so many people, you had to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of your natural water source and use it as efficiently as possible,” says Pestana. “Under ancient Hawaiian law, everyone had the right to water. It was for everyone, but what you took, you had to put back.

Irresponsible pineapple cultivation has degraded much of the area and invasive weeds are now taking over. These volunteers restore native and endemic plants to the site. They use traditional Hawaiian methods, such as ancient water systems incorporating taro terraces, to preserve and rejuvenate this naturally formed water source.



“Hahai no ka ua i ka ululaau – the rain follows after the forest,” says Kaliko Storer, a Hawaiian culture and education specialist. “Watersheds are areas of land, including mountains and valleys, that capture rainwater and other forms of precipitation. This water then seeps into the ground or into larger bodies of water such as streams, rivers or oceans. In Hawaii, all watersheds eventually flow into the ocean.

She adds that the team focuses on reducing invasive plant and animal species in the forest, which helps maintain water flow and prevent erosion. Eroded soil means less water retention, one of the biggest threats to watershed health. Much of the eroded soil ends up in the ocean, choking West Maui’s reefs. Additionally, the preserve is home to 300 native and endemic plant species, including the koa and the endangered state tree of Hawaii. Many plant and animal species in the preserve such as the uau (Hawaiian petrel), Hawaiian hoary bat, and Pacific lace fern are on federal lists of threatened or endangered species.

“Visiting tourists think the tap is an eternal gobstopper,” Storer says. The effects of overtourism on the water supply have been hot topicespecially when visitors to Maui exceeded pre-pandemic numbers at the same time as some residents were forced to conserve water.

“But in reality,” Storer continues, “there is a team of volunteers in orange shirts who run recognition drives daily. They arrive by plane, walk in the valleys and check all the water sources.

The Puu Kukui Watershed Preserve covers 8,304 acres on Mauna Kahalawai, and much of its forest has been degraded due to past pineapple cultivation.

The Puu Kukui Watershed Preserve covers 8,304 acres on Mauna Kahalawai, and much of its forest has been degraded due to past pineapple cultivation.

Kainoa Pestana

During a recent mission, the team discovered ancient laws (irrigated terraces) that Native Hawaiians used to grow kalo, or taro, in the nearby Honolua Valley – a conservation easement that is part of the West Maui watershed. “These old systems were ingenious,” says Pestana. “Terraces – similar to rice paddies – were built next to a water source, which would supply water to the law. This law would distribute water in the next law and follow a series of these terraces before returning at the river.

The team is now working on restoring the law, removing weeds and replanting the kalo. “Hopefully in about a year they will become our food source for us to eat,” Pestana says.

Puu Kukui Watershed Preserve’s work has caught the attention of local resorts, who have stepped up to help. The team regularly recruited workers from two local resorts, Andaz Maui and Hyatt Regency.

“Four years ago, there were no hotels that were part of conservation efforts, watershed projects,” Storer says. “We want to teach that if you use the water, you have to work to maintain the source.” The hope is that these hotel employees will take the lessons they learned and pass them on to their colleagues and hotel guests.

“We need to stop acting like we can just go to Costco and buy cases of water when we have an abundant source of water,” Storer says. “It’s a longer approach, but it’s worth it. From a Hawaiian perspective, our kupuna (elders) tell us “a ka hana ka ike,” which means you learn by doing, but half the work is listening.

“Our goal is to nurture people’s knowledge and their bellies,” adds Pestana, “and hopefully we’ll all be happy in the end.”

Editor’s Note: SFGATE recognizes the importance of diacritics in the Hawaiian language. We cannot use them due to the limitations of our publishing platform.



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