Just in time for the first round of Democratic Party debates in Miami, the Everglades are on fire. Again.

NOTE: pick the correct link

Some 33,500 acres of saw grass in the once watery wilderness were still burning as of Wednesday. Despite some misinformed reports that this is a “natural process” and good for the ecosystem, nothing could be further from the truth.

These reports begin from the mistaken premise that these fires are not “out of the ordinary,” which is only true if your historical lens ends at the dawn of the 20th century, when humans began draining the great “River of Grass” in southern Florida.

As Michael Grunwald, author of “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise,” wrote way back in 2008, yes, there have always been fires in the Everglades, but they were caused by lightning strikes during summer storms, quickly extinguished by the naturally waterlogged environment.

The Everglades are supposed to be incredibly wet, with an annual 60 inches of rain (far more than Seattle). These wetlands once acted as a natural water-management system, storing rainfall and recharging underground aquifers in the summer so that there was always water on the ground, even during the dry winter months.

By contrast, the wildfires that have raged through the Everglades, most prominently in 2008, in 2011, and now, are a direct result of the man-made “water-management” system that paved the way (literally) for industrial agriculture and the eventual development of a sprawling megalopolis in southern Florida.

The Florida Everglades. The author argues that work by the Army Corp of Engineers in the region does not bode well for Corp plans for the Ala Wai Canal. Flickr: Graham C99

Did policymakers in Florida learn a lesson from that experience? Hell no. Instead, they called in the Army Corps of Engineers to build the massive Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, permanently cutting off the Everglades from its source.

The corps built America’s most ambitious flood-control system, with more than 2,000 miles of levees and canals. The project gave water managers the power to move almost every drop of rain that fell south of Orlando, allowing them to whisk floodwaters into the lake, the Everglades, or its estuaries for the convenience of farms and the further development of towns and resorts, but at the expense of the natural ecology of the area.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because we did, essentially, the same thing on Oahu. In 1928, the same year that a hurricane sent storm surges bursting through a flimsy muck dike on Lake Okeechobee, killing 2,500 pioneers in the Everglades, engineers in Honolulu built the Ala Wai canal, sacrificing the marshes of Waikiki for the profits of a new tourism engine that has come to dominate practically every aspect of life in Hawaii.

History Repeats Itself

The Waikiki wetlands were fed by streams from a watershed that extends from Punchbowl to Diamond Head. Like the Everglades, they acted as a natural water-management system, balancing high- and low-water events and safely and efficiently processing tropical storms and other extreme weather events. And, just like in Southern Florida, these extreme weather events — made increasingly worse by warming ocean temperatures — now threaten the same developments that were made possible only through ecological interference.

History does repeat itself. Our elected officials in Hawaii seem determined to double down on further interference, believing — as they did in southern Florida — that we can simply build our way out of a problem that was only created by building in the first place.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Gov. David Ige are in talks with none other than the Army Corps to build a concrete wall around the Ala Wai Canal, an embankment around the Ala Wai golf course, and seven large detention basins near residential areas in Makiki, Manoa and Palolo valleys, upstream of tens of thousands of homes, schools and businesses.

Palolo Stream Ala Wai Canal, near Iolani School.
Palolo Stream as it flows into the Ala Wai Canal near Iolani School. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Are we to imagine that these structures will be flawlessly engineered, that the City and County of Honolulu will actually do the work of maintaining them, and that there is zero chance of structural failure? Do we really believe that we can do a better job of managing floods than the natural wetlands which, for some 1,000 years, succeeded in keeping safe the people living throughout what is now the Ala Wai watershed? We are demonstrating the same extreme hubris as engineers in the ‘Glades did a century ago.

The mighty Hoover Dike is now at risk of a catastrophic failure. Wanting to avoid another disaster like the 1928 dike burst, water managers often blast billions of gallons out of Lake Okeechobee when its waters get too high, ravaging the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries to its east and west, and wasting fresh water they need in times of drought.

“Engineers built the Ala Wai canal, sacrificing marshes for the profits of tourism.”

That’s how southern Florida got into its current predicament. Rain that used to fall on wetlands, recharge aquifers, and dribble across the landscape all year long now falls on yards, roads and parking lots, gushes into canals, and is quickly flushed out to sea. The Everglades are now dry enough to burn out of control anytime a spark is introduced.

This is the kind of unsustainable legacy that our engineering feats have left us with. Is that what we want for the Ala Wai watershed?
I want to protect the community from devastating floods. But history has shown us that the path to get there cannot be a paved one.

At the June Palolo neighborhood board meeting, more than a dozen community members got up to voice concerns about the project. They demanded a new plan to restore the natural ecology of the watershed. In response, Army Corps project manager Jeffrey Herzog told the community: “It’s too late. The damage has already been done.”

I would like a second opinion on that. Because if that is true, then it is already too late, and we have truly doomed ourselves.

The konohiki of the ahupuaa system understood the value of ecological harmony with nature. They knew that sustainability means the ability to sustain life and endure for generations to come.

I believe in a different vision than the one proposed by the Army Corps. If we are to create a truly sustainable future in the Hawaiian islands, we must work to restore the wetlands, and other ecological features critical to successful environmental management. We must learn from the tragedy of the Everglades, before it’s too late.

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