Every Tuesday and Thursday, you can find a group of teenagers up to their knees in muddy taro patches in the back of the Waianae Valley.
They are recording data about how much water is needed to grow taro and mapping the ancient terraces on Ka’ala Farm.
This is not a group of overachieving advanced-placement students. Before being placed in Nanakuli High School’s Comprehensive Student Alienation Program, they were not on track to graduate due to missing classes and credits. The program gives students the chance to catch up and finish school.
And it gives them the chance to change their community.
After months of hands-on learning, this crop of students has become part of a continuing effort to get more water for area farms. They have been striving to provide the science behind a resolution written by last year’s students to the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board urging the Honolulu Board of Water Supply to release water collected at the back of the Waianae Valley into streambeds that are usually dry.
So far no water has been released, but Eric Enos, executive director of Ka’ala Farm, said the effort is continuing.
“Many of my students don’t learn well in the traditional classroom setting,” said teacher Katie Fisher. “Bringing them out to the farm gives them the chance to learn.”
Teacher Jewelynn Kirkland chose the name ‘Aʻaliʻi for Nanakuli’s CSAP student group two years ago, naming it after a plant known for its resilience. ‘A‘ali‘i was one of the few survivors of the military training bombings of Kahoolawe. The Bishop Museum describes the plant as one that twists and bends, but does not break or fall over.
Fisher began looking into hands-on alternative teaching methods years ago and settled on culture-based learning that would also become a useful tool in catching up on school credits.
She said that this wouldn’t be possible without help from Place-based Learning And Community Engagement in School, a federal grant-funded program that began in 2012 and is operated by the Office of Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity at the University of Hawaii Manoa. It provides transportation to venues where students can perpetuate and learn from traditional Hawaiian culture.
The students have spent two days a week at Ka’ala Farm since the beginning of the school year to work on their projects.
Ka’ala Farm is a cultural learning center that teaches people about watershed management and sustainable agriculture.
Enos began his work with alienated youth in the 1960s and became the co-founder of Ka’ala Farm. Under the Model Cities federal urban aid program, Enos began taking kids camping on the 97-acre parcel. Not long after that, his research uncovered ancient taro patches that were overgrown due to water diversions years earlier.
Enos said that a 1906 map by M.D. Montserrat was discovered in the 1970s in Bishop Museum. It shows where streams flowed and ancient terraces of taro grew. When sugar plantations came to the islands and water was diverted, he said the taro terraces dried up and were overgrown with invasive plants.
During this time, students learned how to grow taro from farmers in east Oahu while learning about the agricultural legacy of the Waianae Valley, which was once known as the “food basket” or “poi bowl” of the Leeward Coast. But taro couldn’t grow without water.
After unsuccessful attempts to get a conservation district use application approved, Enos was able to raise enough money in 1978 to purchase a mile of 2-inch PVC pipe to bring water 700 feet down from a creek, where a stream used to flow. The same year, Section XI was added to the state constitution stating, “All public natural resources are held in trust by the State for the benefit of the people.”
When he was confronted by Department of Forestry and Wildlife officers less than a year later, he went before members of the Board of Land and Natural Resources. They told him that he could keep the pipes on the state land, but they did not have jurisdiction of where the pipe enters the water due to water being a public trust.
When a special water panel convened in Waianae in 2016, Barry Usagawa from the Board of Water Supply reiterated that water is a public trust according to the state constitution. It was pointed out that the west side is drier than other spots in the island and water has to be brought into Waianae for domestic use.
The BWS did not respond to a request for comment for this report.
Meanwhile, the teaching of traditional skills to alienated students has continued with use of water from the pipe placed 40 years ago.
Water has been the central topic embraced by the A’ali’i students over the last two years. Last year’s students learned about water diversions and wrote the neighborhood board resolution, which was also presented at the 2016 special water panel and at the Association of Hawaiian Civics Clubs in Las Vegas in 2017.
This year’s class made it a goal to provide the science behind the resolution. They divided into three groups to collect data pertaining to water usage on their projects. Back at school, they used their data to draw conclusions about water usage in the lo’i patches.
“Originally we were just trying to get people talking about water,” said Kellen Smith, who works with PLACES and also sits on the neighborhood board. “But the kids have really been leading the way.”
Using air pressure and water pressure sensors, one group calculated the reabsorption of water in lo’i patches. Another group mapped existing taro patches. A third group determined how much power could be generated on the farm.
Uncovering a tarp from a taro patch, senior Shaunia Medeiros said that the water used is reabsorbed into underground aquifers. She noted that conservation is optimal in these terraces because the leaves on the taro plant provide shade and the dirt in each patch contains a larger surface area which promotes water-retention.
She said any water that doesn’t evaporate returns to the underground aquifer. Medeiros presented her project along with with Monet Samifua and Maka Hatchie at the recent Hawaii State Science and Engineering fair.
Another group mapped out 19,562 square feet in 35 of the existing wet and dryland lo’i patches. Jayden Wyatt said that the number of patches restored is only a fraction of the ancient terraces in the valley. He said more water would be necessary to cultivate all the terraces on the farm.
Wyatt said that he might not have graduated if it weren’t for this program. He said he plans to go to college in New York in the fall on a basketball scholarship.
The last group measured the amount of water going into each patch and found the best place to install a hydroelectric generator. Currently, the farm does not have any electric power. Smith hopes to have the generator ready for installation before the end of the semester so that students have the opportunity to see what their hard work can produce.
Students say that they have become a support system and are like family to one another. Out of the 20 students on the CSAP roster this year, 14 are seniors on track to graduate at the end of spring semester.
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