Rising temperatures and declining rainfall. Miconia and axis deer. Strawberry guava spreading like wildfire.

All are serious threats to Hawaii’s fresh water resources.

On Thursday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie unveiled a far-reaching plan to confront the threats and double the size of Hawaii’s protected watersheds over the next decade.

The challenge will be to find a way to pay for the plan, which is estimated to cost $11 million each of those 10 years.

‘The Rain Follows The Forest’

Abercrombie, who has made sustainability a central aim of his “New Day” plan for the state, believes Hawaii has no choice but to address the watershed crisis.

“The best time to start protecting out mauka watersheds was decades ago,” he said in a statement. “The second best time is now.”

The watershed plan, called “The Rain Follows the Forest” — a Hawaiian saying — aims to dramatically increase protection of thousands of acres of watershed forests on the six main Hawaiian islands.

Currently, only 10 percent of those lands are protected, something the state has taken four decades to accomplish.

Increasing watershed protection requires managing invasive species, addressing climate change and finding more funding for the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources.

That would include, for example, planting native species in key areas and buffer zones, and removing or containing invasive weeds and animals. A side benefit of the plan could be the creation of 150 “green” jobs.

Abercrombie announced the plan at a foresters conference at the Hawaii Convention Center and said it was the “pono” or correct thing to do. He spoke of the traditional Hawaiian concept of ahupuaa — a complex system for land division and management — as a wise stewardship of natural resources.

“We are trying to take those Hawaiian concepts and turn them into action plans,” said Abercrombie.

“The Rain Follows the Forest” plan can be viewed on the governor’s website.

Funding Challenge

How the Hawaii Legislature will react to the funding request for watershed protection is unclear.

DLNR has suffered significant budget cutbacks in recent years, despite a kuleana that also includes soil conservation, aquatic life, wildlife, state parks and historic sites.

The administration said in a press release that the watershed plan “will be leveraged by working with watershed partnerships, alliance that protect and restore our mauka forests across property boundaries.”

Funding will “also require partnerships from private, federal, and other sources.”

Asked by reporters about funding from the Legislature, Abercrombie expressed confidence the state would find the money.

“I’m optimistic about budget situation,” he said. “It won’t be a hard sell.”

The administration believes the plan has the support of state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of Senate Water, Land and Housing. And the point man for the plan is DLNR Chairman William Aila, respected by many lawmakers for his knowledge of Hawaiian culture and his commitment to environmental preservation.

Aila’s predecessor, Laura Thielen, struggled to adequately fund DLNR programs, however. Even though she worked for a Republican governor, the 2011 legislative session made it clear that Democratic lawmakers would do as they pleased even if it was in opposition to the governor, a fellow Democrat.

Watershed Fact Sheet

The administration’s most convincing rationale for the watershed plan may come from hard facts. Few would doubt, for example, that temperatures have increased over the past 20 years as rainfall has declined. Abercrombie pointed to the barren slopes of northeast Molokai to underscore the impact.

And, as part of its announcement, the administration also released a “fact sheet” — along with footnotes for sources — that chronicles examples of what is happening to watersheds.

One example:

Groundwater head levels in Pearl Harbor, which supplies 60 percent of Oahu’s municipal water, have declined by half since 1910.

Another challenge to the plan’s approval may come from hunters, given that more land will be made off limits.

Aila said he believed effective community outreach could mitigate those concerns, given that preservation of drinking water is in everyone’s long-term interest.

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