Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Our precious resource

Water in Hawaii
By: Katie Ersbak

Water issues in Hawaii are complex and varied.  Anyone who has ever hiked to a waterfall or harvested kalo in a lo‘i knows the importance of water in our natural environment and cultural traditions.  Not only does it provide us with a source of potable drinking water, it also feeds our streams, supports biological life, grows our crops and enhances our environment.  But to really understand water issues in Hawaii you must go back to the source - to a time when water was viewed as more than just a resource that could be exploited for profit and financial gain.

To the early Hawaiians, water was seen as the source of all living things and did more than just grow crops.  It sustained life.  The Hawaiian word for water is “wai.”  It’s no coincidence then that the Hawaiian word for wealth is “waiwai.”  Hawaiians understood that when you have “wai,” you have life, and the wealth to sustain yourself upon the land.  The importance of “wai” is also found in place names like Waimea, Waikiki, Waiahole, Waikane, and Waimanalo.  From the forests to fishponds, water has nourished life in Hawaii for centuries.  Fast forward in time and water remains the single most important issue affecting these islands. 

Now, before I go any further, I must confess that I am by no means a “water expert.”  I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to Hawaii five years ago to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii.  In 2011, I began working for the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) at the Commission on Water Resource Management (also known as CWRM or the Water Commission).  This write-up is by no means the best resource when it comes to understanding "water issues" in Hawaii.  It is simply my take on a very complex issue and one that I am happy to share with those who are interested.  Now, getting back to the Water Commision...

The Water Commission is responsible for managing all of the State’s water resources, including its underground aquifers, rivers and streams, and serves as “the trustee who oversees the rightful sharing of water.”  But what does “the rightful sharing of water” actually mean?  Well, it’s a lot more complicated than you think.  Contrary to modern day opinion, water cannot be owned.  It is a public trust resource, which means it must be protected and held in trust for the general well-being of the public.  Unfortunately, to uphold its public trust duties, the Water Commission must contend with powerful landowners and agencies that continue to view water as a commodity – not to be shared, but to be used as a means to grow business and pocketbooks.  This mindset drastically differs from the mindset of the ancient Hawaiians and is the source of a growing number of conflicts throughout the State.

While water has always been a mainstay in Hawaiian culture and traditions, it became a source of power in the mid to late 1800s when many of Hawaii’s streams were diverted to feed agricultural crops – most notably sugar.  Large plantations sought to control the flow of water to ensure the success of their crops and constructed extensive irrigation ditches that funneled water from the wet windward side to the dry leeward side of the islands.  The business of diverting water became the cornerstone of the sugar cane industry in Hawaii and continues to this day.  Even after the sugar industry flopped in the early 1990s, Hawaii’s streams continue to be diverted.  Such diversions have raised a number of concerns, particularly among taro farmers who have been left with very little water to sustain their crops.  Native stream animals like o‘opu are also impacted by the diversions when they are unable to migrate upstream due to the lack of water.  Issues like climate change compound the problem and have caused periods of prolonged drought, which can leave streams completely dry.  In the last couple years, waterfalls have stopped flowing entirely, including Rainbow Falls on the Big Island, which was completely dry in December of 2012.  Today, taro farmers and environmental groups are demanding that these streams be restored.  However, while the Water Commission has been petitioned to take action on these issues, the agency is underfunded, which makes it difficult to look after the water resources it is entrusted to protect. 

Of course, stream diversions are not the only threat to Hawaii’s water.  As Hawaii’s population continues to grow, so does its thirst for water.  Every day millions of gallons of water are pumped from our aquifers to accommodate Hawaii’s growing economy.  The Water Commission is responsible for regulating how much water can be pumped by issuing “water use permits.”  Permits are issued to agencies like the Board of Water Supply that provide the infrastructure needed to transport water into our homes.  When we pay our water bills at the end of the month, we are actually paying for the service of transporting the water, not the actual cost of the water itself.  Water use permits are issued based on a complex equation that estimates the “sustainable yield” of each aquifer (Oahu).  Sustainable yield provides an estimate of the amount of water that can be reasonably pumped from an aquifer without impacting the source.  Thus, the more the population grows the less water we can reasonably pump without impairing our aquifers. 

Another management tool employed by the Water Commission is the designation of Ground and Surface Water Management areas.  Currently there are only a handful of designated management areas in the State (map).  These include the entire island of Oahu (excluding the Waianae coast), all of Molokai, and the Na Wai Eha area on Maui.  Water use permits in designated management areas are more severely scrutinized and must be approved by the Commission on Water Resource Management.  It is likely that more areas will be designated in the near future.  As such, and in light of future development proposals, the Water Commission must decide how water can be reasonably allocated among users, while simultaneously balancing the needs of Hawaii’s unique and fragile environment.

Of course protecting our streams and aquifers is only part of the conversation.  Our forests and watersheds need protecting too.  Hawaii is the endangered species capital of the world, which means that invasive species account for a significant percentage of Hawaii’s flora and fauna.  Invasive species not only threaten the health of our native species, but also the health and quality of our water.  Invasives like strawberry guava soak up huge amounts of water and prevent rainfall from percolating back into the ground to recharge our aquifers.  Other invasives, including feral ungulates like pigs and goats, trample native vegetation and increase the spread of invasive flora.  Their impact on the watershed has caused significant damage, uprooting native plants and impairing our topsoil.  During heavy rain events, top soil is lost, running off into our streams and eventually into our oceans suffocating our reefs and damaging our near shore fisheries.  Programs to eradicate invasives are essential to boost the health of our forests, including fencing in the upper regions of the watershed to help ensure the survivorship of natives by keeping invasive ungulates out.
As residents of Hawaii, it is our duty to ensure that our natural resources don’t go to waste.  Water is the single most important issue affecting our generation and will remain at the forefront for decades to come.  It is vital that we continue to think critically about Hawaii’s water and do what we can to protect it and manage it properly.  Hawaiians understood this and took steps to ensure that water was cared for and protected.  The expression “the rain follows the forest” is as true today as it was centuries ago.  If we protect our forests we will in turn protect our precious water resources.  Thus, we must invest in balancing natural vs. human needs.  That is our challenge – to find a proper balance between the needs of a growing island economy with the preservation of Hawaii’s unique natural heritage.

During my first few years at the Water Commission, I have gained valuable insight into Hawaii’s water issues and continue to grapple with the difficult issues that shape our island state.  Water is the critical piece to an ever-growing puzzle and is an essential resource that we cannot afford to waste.  After all, what would Hawaii look like without its waterfalls?  What will we drink when our aquifers run dry?  These are not imagined futures.  Unless we change our relationship to water, this may be our future.

The story of Hawaii and Hawaii’s water is ours to tell.  Let’s make sure it’s a good one.

For more information feel free to check out the Water Commission webpage at http://state.hi.us/dlnr/cwrm/ and the book "Sugar Water" by Carol Wilcox (it's one of my favorites).

The commercial DLNR came up with.
This one is a lot longer but if you have the time please watch.  It's very informative. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Off the beaten path

The slogan for The North Face is "Never stop exploring".  This past week I did just that.  On Tuesday after some rains for a few days I was itching to explore some waterfalls.  I had an feeling that a place near where I live would have some flow. 

Kiko joined me on the hike and we made a quick pace from the trail head, I needed to be at work on time.  Making our way through a well swathed trail we got to where we needed to be in about an hour.  We then rock hopped our way up the stream and hit our first major pool.  We saw tiers of waterfalls flowing down the stream which brought a huge smile to my face.  With time to spare we decided to continue on to where we thought was too tough for a recon mission.  The first major falls we contoured and bushwhacked through some strawberry guava.  Up above the first falls we saw another.  This one was a little more difficult to negotiate.  Kiko only had rubber soled shoes which made the ascent above this falls very dangerous.  He said he'd wait here and I would have to continue on without him.  He gave me some webbing just in case I needed it.  I slowly made my way above this falls and told him I'd only go ten minutes. 

As I continued on I passed a rolling waterfalls which was easy to climb and followed the stream bed all the way to a forty foot waterfall spilling into a pool.  I stopped and snapped some shots and looked around for a bit.  Since no one was with me now I decided to turn around at this point.

You can bet I was ecstatic on finding this gem of a hike that people usually just pass up when it's right under their noses. 

After the recon mission I was tickled with the idea of going back so quickly.  With few rains left in our forecast the need to do a waterfall hike really wrenched on my brain.  A few of my friends were doing waterfall hikes but those were VERY dependent on rain.  I thought screw it let's go back now!  I called Kiko back and phoned my buddy Matt.  Both were down to go see it.  Katie also wanted to see what all the fuss was about this past week so she had to go. 

We set out a little later that day.  It seemed as though the rain was still there.  The flow of the stream was way stronger than Tuesday and it got us going.  We reached the point where most people usually don't go and I could tell on the look of Matt's and Katie's faces it was a gem of a hike like I mentioned before.  We climbed up to the point where I stopped.  We figured that going straight up the waterfall even though there was a rope was dangerous.  There was a small swath that led up the left side of the falls that we followed.  As we climbed up and over the falls just before dropping down to the stream again I looked up and my jaw dropped in utter amazement.  What I saw was like a painting Georgia O'Keeffe painted.  A thin ribbon of a waterfall high in the mountains flowing down; you can see the steps and tiers of waterfalls flowing down into the stream just above where  we were.
We got back down to the stream bed and just above the forty foot waterfall was a pool.  We dubbed it "Nature's Infinity Pool".  We continued up the stream bed through several more gully type waterfalls.  We reached the base of the tall waterfall we saw deep in the mountains and celebrated.  Going straight up the waterfall was too dangerous so we contoured as far as we could up the right side of the waterfall.  The forest got real dense and we were following a pig trail.  The soil was really loose so we decided to save it for another time.  We made our way back down and out of the hike. 

This hike was really good and unspoiled from what I saw.  There was no trash up there so I know that not a lot of people have been up there.  Hopefully it will stay that way.  Till next time! 

Photos provided by: Katie, Matt, and Kiko

Picture doesn't do this view justice.  It was utter jaw dropping.

On our way out I had to play in some water.

 We look and see how to climb this waterfall safely.  
 Matt climbing one of the falls.
Everyone watching Ryan climb down one of the bigger falls with the aid of a rope. 

Off the beaten path from Ryan Chang on Vimeo.