Water for Thought
Hawaii’s waters of life, ka wai ola, are the very essence of life and culture in Hawaii, what we survive on and must pass along as a sustainable legacy. In the lyrics to “Aloha Oe,” Queen Liliuokalani tells of the rain falling onto the blossoms of native ohia trees in Hawaii’s mountain forests. Wai– fresh water– has always been sacred to the Hawaiians, as it was to the Greeks, another island people who worshipped springs. In our rush to development, we’ve imperilled this resource that’s essential to all species’ survival, from our own to the ‘iiwi bird that feeds on the nectar of ‘ohia. We’ve done so by failing to adequately conserve our natural watersheds, the mountain forests that collect and filter the water we drink.
In tight budget times for Hawaii, some might challenge the timing of a watershed initiative that will run millions of dollars a year. The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) counters that our future is at stake. “We need to be incorporating into our thinking Hawaii’s water needs 50 years from now,” says William Tam, deputy director of the Commission on Water Resource Management. Besides, some key funding for the watershed protection plan may come from a 10-cent surcharge on single-use bags at retail stores. This new revenue source is provided for in SB2511, which, along with SB2782 (authorizing funding for DLNR’s watershed programs), has passed the Senate and is now pending in the House. Right now is the crucial time “to let our legislators know that we support watershed protection and these bills, because each bill only has one more public hearing to go–before the House Finance Committee,” says Mark Fox, director of external affairs for the Hawaii chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
Why the urgency? Our fresh water supply is declining, according to the DLNR’s The Rain Follows the Forest plan, which adds: “If this trend continues, future generations will not have access to water at reasonable rates, and may face tight restrictions.”
Retired state forester Mike Buck puts it bluntly: “Our watersheds are arriving at a tipping point with water the source on which our lives depend.”
Here are some of the supporting facts:
In December 2011, the US Geological Survey (USGS) announced that Hawaii is in a long-term drought, “severe” and even “extreme” in some parts of the state.
Half of Hawaii’s prime watershed forests are gone, and of the 840,000 acres remaining, only 10 percent are now well-protected from serious assaults by invasive species, DLNR’s plan reports.
Hawaii’s thirsty population is now more than double that at statehood, and set to double again in another 60 or so years.
Climate change and sea level rise threaten our aquifers with saltwater encroachment, and there are questions about the sustainable yield in some aquifers.
Our heavy reliance on global food sources puts us at serious risk.
You and I are roughly 60 percent water, by both volume and weight. The human brain is 70 percent water, so here is some water for thought.
As Gov. Neil Abercrombie put it in announcing the plan, “The best time to start protecting our mauka watersheds was decades ago. The second best time is now.” The governor added, “Investing in the protection of fresh water sources must be the highest priority for Hawaii’s public leaders.” Emphasis: “highest priority.”
Growing our own
“We need a comprehensive planning system that incorporates protecting watersheds and water sources, stimulating far more local farming, smart growth linked to transportation and more clean energy. Water links all of these,” says Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz.
According to a new Ulupono Initiative survey on local food production, more than 90 percent of Hawaii residents see growing far more of our own food as either “Extremely Important” or “Important.” Similar surveys show voters supporting more watershed protection just as heavily. Without secure water sources, local diversified agriculture can’t expand to provide better food security. With a bill on food self-sufficiency currently making its way through the House, the legislature has yet another opportunity to contribute to food security–by funding water security through SBs 2511 and 2782.
For 1.36 million Hawaii residents plus 150,000 daily tourists, 92 percent of everything we eat is imported. Aside from macadamia nuts, according to farmer Charles Reppun, we plant only 5,000 acres of diversified agriculture to produce food for local consumption. But Hawaii grows some 15,000 acres of genetically engineered seed corn, all for export. Other sources say we have at most seven days of food available should a disastrous earthquake, a tsunami or a shipping strike stop our regular food imports.
Our 92 percent imported food (plus nearly 100 percent imported energy) represents a disaster waiting to happen. Heavy reliance on imported food means that, in effect, we also import the water it takes to grow that food, water from national and world sources now undergoing dramatic changes via global warming.
Do we have the water needed to grow most of our food? Only Maui and Oahu presently face questions of water scarcity. Islanders use somewhere between 100 and 200 gallons of water apiece daily, with our recent per-capita water consumption declining slightly. On the other hand, rising population, increases in visitors, climate change and sea level rise, a long-term serious drought, and a siege of invasive species threatening our watersheds create a kind of perfect storm of risks.
Bread and water
About half the calories humans consume globally come directly from grain, with grain-fed meat and egg products a significant part of remaining calories. The world adds 76 million more people a year, the equivalent of Hawaii’s population every 6.5 days. With seven billion of us now scrambling after the same water and food resources, scientists tell us we already consume as if we had 1.5 worlds to draw on. Some 3.5 billion people live in 18 countries that are seriously overdrawing their aquifers, countries that include the US, Mexico, China and India. Huge new deserts are forming in Northern China and Africa. The race between available global water and food versus global population has long since set off alarms Hawaii needs to heed.
Alexander Mueller, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) director general of natural resources, projects that by 2050 food demand and water use will both soar by 70 percent. Mueller is signaling us that the era of cheap food is ending, and that without what he calls “more crop per drop,” serious water scarcity will likely become the norm. Seventy percent of freshwater allocations globally already go to farmland irrigation, and swelling megacities compete for that water.
According to water analyst Peter Gleick, testifying before Congress, “Climate changes are increasingly threatening water systems and water resources everywhere,” an opinion supported by more than 60 top international scientific organizations. Gleick goes on to cite a critical challenge in “inadequate investment in critical water infrastructure,” i.e., watershed protection.
Amid this challenging, waterlogged scenario, Gleick reminds us that it takes 1,000 tons of water to grow one ton of wheat, a gallon of water to grow the wheat for a slice of bread, 150 gallons to produce a 1/3-pound hamburger and about 70 gallons to produce a glass of beer.
Lester Brown in World on the Edge puts it succinctly, “We are one bad harvest away from chaos in world food markets,” those same markets which you and I expect to feed us.
Hawaii rainforests need more protection
All this global gloom obviously argues for a comprehensive effort to grow far more food here for local consumption, something ancient Hawaiians mastered with their ahupuaa system and comprehensive approach to protecting water resources.
Gov. Abercrombie, DLNR water officials, plus 11 existing watershed partnerships and important contributors, such as TNC and Coordinating Group for Alien Pest Species (CGAPS), all advocate doubling our rainforest watershed protection.
As US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently reminded us, on a national scale, one out of 12 jobs relates to farming. Hawaii, however, has a meager 7,500 people employed in farming. Hawaii needs these jobs as much as we need locally grown food and farm income circulating in the islands.
On the water delivery side, Honolulu’s Board of Water supply just announced a major initiative to repair and replace aged water pipes. Honolulu water prices will rise 70 percent in the next five years.
The silent invasion
Currently, 11 watershed partnerships effectively protect only 10 percent of the priority watershed areas, about 90,000 out of 840,000 mauka acres. This level of partnership management has taken 40 years to develop. In The Rain Follows plan, DLNR has set a goal of doubling the area of protected watershed areas in just 10 years. Invasive feral pigs and goats, plus deer, feral cattle, and a few feral sheep ravage our watersheds. Feral pigs reproduce as early as age 6 months; one pig can multiply to as many as 500 in four years. These ungulates devastate indigenous plant species, creating puddles that harbor avian mosquitoes and spreading non-native strawberry guavas. A feral pig can devastate a forest area the size of a football field in a week.
According to Christy Martin of CGAPS, 200 invasive plants pose serious threats to the balance of watershed forests. “In the long run, how effectively we deal with these invasive species holds a key to our future,” Martin says. Invaders include:
Salvinia molesta, a South American water fern which can double its mat in 7 to 10 days. Control and eradication costs, $1 million a year.
Miconia calvescens, a 30-50 foot tree producing millions of sand-grain-sized seeds per year, eliminating other plants and keeping the water from reaching the rain forest floor to recharge the watershed. Cost, $3 million a year and growing.
Coqui frogs, whose sound can reach 90 decibels, and concentration can reach up to 10,000 per acre. Moreover, they don’t eat mosquitoes.
Strawberry Guavas, which grow to 15 feet and now engulf 495,000 acres, causing serious losses of rare endemic flora and fauna, as well as consuming water that never reaches the rest of the ecosystem. Feral pigs spread the guavas.
Total annual Hawaii losses to invasive species are estimated at $300 million, not counting the loss of water in island aquifers.
Inspecting cargo flights to Maui, Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture found an average of one new insect species arriving per day. Grossly underfunded inspection and prevention measures mean higher watershed protection costs.
Hawaiian watershed wisdom
Sam ‘Ohu Gon III, senior rainforest scientist and cultural advisor for TNC Hawaii, says, “Our forests are in danger of losing the natural balance that supplies us our water.” In The Rain Follows plan, he adds, “Hawaiian traditions regard these mauka forests as sacred, and the plants and the animals within them as our ‘aumakua–our elders and ancestors. Damage and loss of these forests chips away at the foundation of our cultural identity.”
Hawaiian cultural analyst and practitioner Ramsay Taum adds an important perspective, “wai, fresh water, carries within it the word for food, ‘ai. All living things, mankind, plants, animals, are connected by the waters of life. Waiwai refers to wealth of any kind, to high value, and kanawai means the law, rules requiring respect.”
Today, some 71 county, state, federal, private and non-profit entities such as Kamehameha Schools and TNC collaborate in partnerships to manage jointly owned island watersheds. Historically, a single konohiki managed land and resource use in each ahupua’a, a watershed management area defined by geographic features from mountain tops to the sea.
In the Hawaii Watershed Guidance Final, the Hawaii Office of Planning Coastal Zone Management adds: “Traditional Hawaiian management adopted a holistic approach that recognized the interconnectedness of land and sea, the interactions among species, the rhythms of the seasons, and the impacts of overuse on resources.”
It is these traditionally sustained interconnections, from the clouds to the mountaintops, through the aquifers and down the streams through our buildings and farms to the sea that we need to retrace and fortify along with our ties as neighbors sharing wai.