Students returning to in-person learning at Kapiolani Community College might notice some plants and trees have withered and are slumped around campus, among other unsightly maintenance concerns.

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The institution on the slopes of Diamond Head is known for its gardens, but lingering irrigation issues have caused lawn maintenance to subside.

At the new Culinary Institute of the Pacific, native plants and trees have perished without proper watering. Meanwhile, a kalo patch at the college’s Mala Maunuunu garden is filled with stagnant water due to a broken pump.

Administrators say the issues are not about a lack of funding but rather lengthy inspection periods, including in-house inspections and contractor procurement. Staff members argue the delay has dragged on and is impacting students’ learning.

“I would definitely advocate for more institutional support for these gardens,” Mike Ross, an assistant botany professor at KCC, said. “They are really key to education on the campus.”

Some gardens and native plants at Kapiolani Community College are withering away. Alyssa Rodello/Civil Beat/2022

Considered one of the “jewels of the UH system,” the culinary institute is a relatively new initiative for food innovation, complete with a restaurant, auditorium and outdoor dining area.

The $25 million first phase of the institute project broke ground in 2015. It was paid for with a mix of private donations and federal and state funds.

Also in 2015, a law signed by Gov. David Ige mandated the state to include native plants in its designs for new and renovated landscaping projects. The goal of the bill is to gradually increase the minimum footprint of native plant coverage from 10% of public landscaping in 2019 to 35% by 2030.

The law became effective on June 30, 2016, and KCC is including such plants and trees in its future landscaping projects.

The $30 million second phase of the institute project started in October 2020 and is scheduled to be completed this fall. The state paid for $20 million of that project, while private donors covered the remaining $10 million.

In December 2020, the institute’s campus began experiencing irrigation issues, causing its native plants to wither, including ohia lehua trees.

Brian Furuto, vice chancellor of administrative services, could not give a specific estimate of the cost of what it would take to replace or replant the damaged flora at the culinary institute’s campus, but said it will cost at least “tens of thousands dollars.”

The first step taken to identify the root cause of the irrigation problem was an in-house assessment of the system, he said. But the in-house staff could not identify the problem, he said, adding the next step was hiring a plumber to do a “more professional” evaluation. The plumber determined that there were broken lines and valves in need of replacement.

The college then contracted a landscaping company to do those repairs, which initially helped to solve the problem, Furuto said. But even that was not the final solution.

In mid-October, it was discovered that the irrigation’s control panel — considered the “brain of the system” — was constantly shorting out. The control panel is manufactured by Hunter and is distributed locally by Pacific Pipe.

School officials are dealing with broken valves and electrical issues at KCC’s new culinary institute. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2020

A technician from the distributor replaced various components of the control panel that were still under warranty, Sean Nathan, facilities maintenance and auxiliary services director, said. The malfunctioning was a result of an electrical short, he added, and it was deemed unnecessary for the entire unit to be replaced.

According to Nathan, the fuses blew on each attempt to energize the controller after the parts were replaced. The technician then recommended leaving the unit off, causing another downstream irrigation system to remain without power, he said.

With no electricity to the irrigation system, it has been difficult to identify what is actually causing the electrical short, which has elongated the repair process.

“I am currently working with (Green Thumb Inc.) to use a transformer that will remotely energize lines, which will hopefully enable testing and identification of the electrical short,” Nathan wrote in an email.

Furuto said administrators, out of frustration, considered replacing the entire system at the culinary institute altogether. Those plans, however, were quickly thrown out because it would cost an “exorbitant amount,” he said.

Furuto is optimistic that the irrigation system at the culinary-institute campus will be functioning again sometime between mid-April to May. In addition, the dead trees at the culinary institute will be removed by mid-to-late-March.

When asked about how much all of this is going to cost, he said he would be unable to provide an estimate before speaking with a contractor.

New native plants and trees will be installed at the culinary-institute campus sometime in March 2023, Furuto said.

He acknowledged that the new plants would be affected if the current irrigation system is not fixed in time.

Broken Pumps Leave Students Without Kalo

Meanwhile, the Mala Maunuunu garden, located behind the Manele building, is an extension of the college’s Hawaiian Studies and botany departments. It provides hands-on learning and is the official site for service and sustainability education on campus. It was created in 2012 and funded through a grant.

“That’s arguably the most important garden on the campus,” Ross said. “Since it relates to the indigenous-serving capacity and the cultural activities that we would do in that garden.”

The Mala Maunnuunu has been utilized by Hawaiian studies and botany students. In the past, a full-time employee oversaw the garden, including student workers and educational programs. However, when funding from that grant dried up, the college made no attempt to institutionalize the position, Ross said.

“Right now, it’s mostly myself and a few other faculty members that are volunteering to help oversee the three student workers,” Ross said. Those positions are funded by a different source, he said.

A series of ponds that used to pump water into the garden’s kalo patch are no longer working.

At the Mala Maunuunu garden, a series of ponds that used to pump water into the garden’s kalo patch are no longer working, and there are no plans to have them fixed anytime soon. Alyssa Rodello/Civil Beat/2022

According to Furuto, there is no current timetable to get the system fixed, which he said will be costly. Staff members received a quote of about $50,000 to get the system repaired, he said.

Similarly, there are irrigation systems around the campus in need of repair, Ross said. He added that he believes the Kalia, Olona and areas around the Kopiko buildings are not being irrigated.

Nathan said that some trees on campus were documented as dying off when parts of the irrigation system were shut off for repairs. He added that the current system is not flexible and does not allow maintenance staff to isolate where water gets turned off.

Due to the concerns raised by “campus stakeholders” regarding plant health during repairs, Nathan said, more attention has been placed on reassessing the existing distribution of valves throughout the campus irrigation systems.

In terms of the culinary-institute and the Mala Maunuunu garden, Furuto said that administrators are aware of the problems there and would like to get them fixed as quickly as possible. But he warned that it’s a matter of time, not money.

“It is not a huge issue about money quite honestly,” he said. “It’s that there’s a process. We have to take it in-house, then we contract out, and then we figure out procurement of services and procurement of contractors. There’s time involved at each of these different steps.”

He said that the impact on student learning from the delay is also considered.

“Certainly, we don’t want the students’ education to be impacted by this,” he said, adding that students have not been on-site until recently due to the pandemic. “Ideally, these issues would have been resolved before students returned to campus.”

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