Restoring Molokai’s Watersheds

Lack of funds stalls project implementation.  

A satellite view of Kawela Watershed.

By Jennifer Smith

Restoring Molokai’s watersheds remains high on local community groups’ priority lists, but finding the funding to support conservation projects continues to stall implementation.

The Governor’s Molokai Community Advisory Council (GMCAC) met last Tuesday to continue discussions from last month’s meeting on issues facing the island’s watersheds. Despite lacking a quorum that would allow formal business to take place, guest speaker and conservation specialist with the National Association of Conservation Districts Debra Kelly went ahead with her scheduled presentation on the watershed-based plan for the South Shore of Molokai. 

Kawela Watershed Project
Kelly began by providing background on the ongoing research being conducted on the Kawela Watershed. Out of the 21 watersheds identified on Molokai, Kawela was selected (in addition to two others in the state of Hawaii) as a priority ahupua`a, to receive focused action in a project to address land-based pollution threats to coral reefs.

Kawela was chosen because of the amount of sediment that gets washed into the ocean when flooding occurs.

Members of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have monitored the coral reefs in the area for the past five years. The week before the meeting a team installed a new erosion control monitoring site in the Kawela area. These locked boxes help to measure the amount of water received and the erosion that occurs.

A typical monitoring site shows approximately an inch of erosion during a heavy rain. When that is compounded across the entire ahupua`a, “your talking tons of sediment moving off of Kawela,” said Kelly.

She asks residents who see these locked boxes to please not tamper with them, as they are providing important information on the watersheds. “It’s for the benefit of our island.”

Possible Causes
Studies of the site have shown alarmingly low levels of vegetation in areas that are receiving enough water for plants to grow. These areas that GMCAC co-chair Robert Granger describes as a “moonscape” have been identified as one of the main causes of erosion.

The rain hits the rough, almost desolate, terrain and causes erosion, which eventually leads to large amounts of sediment in the ocean.

The lack of vegetation has been largely attributed to an overabundance of goats in the gulch, according to Kelly.

Possible Solutions
In 1966 the Army Corps conducted a flood study that outlined the Kawela area and where floods would be for the next 100 years. Reports today show flood numbers far exceeding these initial estimates, and a consequent need to act quickly on watershed restoration practices.

National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) engineers suggest the use of a sediment basin as a short-term solution. Kelly said a basin located towards the bottom of the watershed could also be cleaned out regularly to allow reuse of the soil. 

Unfortunately, the construction of a sediment basin would cost upwards of $2 million, and would most likely take an act of congress to get approved, according to agencies in the Department of Interior.

Other proposed solutions include animal control, and re-vegetation of the watershed. The rough terrain will make the implementation of both of these solutions challenging at best.

Public Testimony
Homestead farmer Walter Ritte made sure to clarify to the council that the lower section of the watershed, often referred to as a rice patch is actually a loko pu`uone. “This is an inland fishpond … the community should say this is a fishpond.”

He also mentioned a concern for the dry conditions in the area, and what he felt was unjustified blame on the goats. Ritte suggested looking at “what else is happening on that hill.”

What’s Next
The current phase of the Kawela watershed project is to identify possible solutions, the next would be to determine design, cost, and feasibility, according to Kelly.

In the 1960s, $1 million was set aside to do watershed restoration on the island, but at the time a feasibility study decided the cost versus the impact to the people did not justify using the money. Since then, the funds for conservation projects such as this have been regularly diverted to other concerns.

Kelly said if and when the funds are allocated, efforts would need to be used to restore all South Shore watersheds.

“It’s all interconnected,” to fix one would be a moot point, she said.

The next GMCAC meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9 at 3 p.m. in the DHHL conference room.

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