WAIHEE — At the foot of a cascading waterfall, what was once a mighty torrent becomes little more than a trickle. A rusty pipe drains much of the flow away from the stream bed. Further downriver, a man-made channel protects adjacent property from potential overflows. Where the stream meets the sea, plastic garbage chokes the wetlands.
From mauka to makai, from top to bottom, humans have pretty well screwed up the Waihee watershed. Rather than nourishing the valley and its inhabitants and providing nutrients to the ocean and its reefs, the liquid of life is being neglected.
But in this sea of destruction, some dare to swim against the current.
Hui O Koolaupoko is a Windward Oahu community organization committed to protecting water resources from Makapuu to Kualoa. Last weekend, it held its first “watershed walk,” carrying on the work of the Kailua Bay Advisory Council. Some two dozen concerned citizens attended, with 125 more on a waiting list.
The event was designed to “help the community become more familiar with their ahupuaa,” a Hawaiian concept that translates most directly as “watershed” but denotes a mountains-to-ocean system of resource management.
The work in Waihee, just north of Kaneohe, is part of a reawakening across the state to the importance of watershed health. The Hawaii Association of Watershed Partnerships includes nine different alliances of public and private landowners working to protect watersheds across six Hawaiian Islands.
Education that connects people to the land is sorely needed. When children were asked to draw the land features of their neighborhoods, their sketches failed to include fishponds or peninsulas but had one common feature: the Windward Mall. That horrified John Reppun, executive director of the Kualoa-Heeia Ecumenical Youth (KEY) Project.
“When you put up fences, learning stops,” he said.
Wetlands also help control and mitigate potentially dangerous and damaging floods, serve as a nursery for wildlife and fish, and provide a place for human recreation and education, he said. But the muddy area, which both looks and feels like a sponge, was first overrun by non-native mangrove forests and is now littered with glass bottles and rope.
Further mauka, efforts are under way to establish a community taro patch near Waihee Stream that can serve as a “classroom of the future.” Locals say that where the valley was once filled with taro, from top to bottom, now residents are lucky if even five or six acres of taro remain.
Also in the stream, one of Hui O Koolaupoko’s projects is a so-called “fish ladder” that will allow native oopu — Hawaiian gobies — to make their way toward the mountains.
Oopu were featured in the Discovery Channel television documentary “Life” for their ability to climb a 1,200-foot waterfall with just a slight bit of water flowing to keep their gills filled. While they can traverse even vertical terrain, they cannot jump backwards and up at the same time, and are now trapped below a man-made overhang in the stream.
Hui O Koolaupoko Executive Director Todd Cullison, who worked on salmon passage in Oregon before coming to Hawaii, said at first he was inclined to destroy the concrete barrier altogether. But after conferring with the community, it was decided that the barrier could instead be modified to keep non-native fish below while allowing native fish like the oopu to pass.
Further upstream, a gravel path ends at the foot of Waihee Falls. At maybe 100 feet tall, it is impressive and impassable. Those who choose to step under the falls for a quick, chilling dip often leave their slippers and shirts on a nearby patch of concrete, out of which sprouts a sizable system of rusted metal pipes somewhat out of place in the otherwise lush valley.
“When you take water out of the watershed, what’s the impact?” Reppun asks. “What are the alternatives?”
Hui O Koolaupoko holds Heeia Stream Restoration work days the third Saturday of each month. The next one is scheduled for June 19. For more information, visit http://huihawaii.org/getinvolved.html.
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