EPA's American Wetlands Month - May 2012

I dedicate this presentation with respect to the memory of those who six years ago today lost their lives as a result of the Ka Loko disaster on March 14, 2006.

Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet.  They are invaluable not only to waterfowl and scores of other wildlife species, but also to the very quality of life on earth.  Our five endangered native Hawaiian waterbirds depend on wetland habitat throughout their life cycle.  Our freshwater recreational fishing is entirely dependent on wetlands.  Freshwater wetlands cover only 1% of earth's surface, but they hold more than 40% of the world's species and 12% of all animal species.  Over 50% of the wetlands in the US have been totally destroyed.

In Hawaii wetlands cover less than 3% of our land surface, supporting both plant and animal species endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, most especially the recovery of endangered waterbirds.  Kauai is considered the last strong hold by many for the endangered Hawaiian duck, goose, moorhen, stilt and coot due to the lack of the Indian mongoose, an invasive mammalian predator.  USF&WS estimates there has been a 31% decline in Hawaii's wetlands and by 1990 only 15,481 acres of coastal plains wetlands remained.

In 1991 C. Brewer advertised our Kalihiwai Reservoir as a private 30-acre lake to sell real estate.  The lake is now probably about 21-acres averaging 6.5 feet depth with about a mile shoreline wetland habitat holding 46 odd million gallons of water at full pool.  Home year round to at least 100 endangered native Hawaiian waterbirds and many more than that when the nene flock in for their breeding rituals and when the duck and stilt come to visit.  Not to mention an amazing diverse population of other living things.

Our seven deep water marsh inlets with water depth greater than 2 feet for extended times is the preferred wetland for wildlife.  Our wetland wildlife habitat requires consistent water level, a mix of cover and open water, height and arrangement of density of wetland aquatic plants at shoreline.  The second two requirements depend on the first in order for wildlife to satisfy their basic needs for food, shelter and nesting.  Wetland edges need to be irregular in shape, with bays, inlets, and peninsulas.  20-acre reservoirs are considered permanent wetlands or aquatic habitat.  Our Kalihiwai Reservoir is a perfect virtual definition of a permanent pristine state listed wetland habitat that supports the life and breeding of the endangered coot, moorhen and nene.

This preserve is also a piece of our community's 92-year history and as you see is a pristine member of our neighborhood, also serving as a flood control facility and meeting the agricultural water needs for numerous areas of Kilauea.  It is the last gravity fed water storage facility remaining in operation in our area to serve these current and growing future water needs of Kilauea.  Kalihiwai Reservoir is a precious rare jewel to many of us, but to the endangered waterbirds and other creatures who live and breed here it is their home.  That is a fact we cannot ignore.  And because of the Endangered Species Act with our knowledge of their dependence on this specific environment we are legally responsible to conserve the ecosystem upon which these endangered native waterbirds depend.

This federal law enforces the protection of these endangered species and their ecosystem from any significant habitat modification or degradation where it injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavior patterns including their breeding, feeding or sheltering.  It requires ongoing maintenance and expert, thoughtful water management to sustain this healthy ecosystem that brought these endangered birds to our shores long before we were ever here, which is in part about sustaining a consistent water level.

Not until August to November 6, 2011 have we ever suffered such crisis and degradation to the ecosystem as you see pictured.  In 13-17 years living on or observing the lake during consistent normal rainfall or during times of Kauai style draught, we have never seen the shoreline water level fluctuate so dramatically, resulting in the immediate loss of our seven inlets and about 2/3 of the lake surface.  We can learn from this three month crisis what a difference just a few weeks can make to the degradation of our healthy wetland habitat, just as we can see what a recent two week rain storm can do to restore it. Unless conservation and protection of our Kalihiwai Reservoir wetlands takes more of a top priority and is reflected in the Memorandum of Understanding, we could potentially see this happening again and again in the years ahead during our seasons of fluctuating rainfall.

As of July 2011 new wording has been inserted into the Dam and Reservoir Safety Act HRS 179D-6, adding Act 154.  BLNR now must consider if the Kalihiwai Reservoir is an important resource that provides significant benefit to the general public, including irrigation for agriculture and other important uses. If such uses are found the BLNR is required to acknowledge the need for the Kalihiwai Reservoir to be consistently maintained and operated in a manner that sustains its important use, as long as public safety concerns are met.

It is my contention that the federal ESA laws protecting the ecosystem of endangered species is an important use and therefore needs to go hand in hand with the DLNR engineering safety studies to consider how any possible remedies required for safety might also environmentally impact our wetland habitat in such a way as to potentially modify or degrade the ecosystem of our endangered species so we protect this important resource for the general public and the wildlife as well.

Enforcing safety issues of the dam is paramount, while also conserving our wetland and enforcing endangered species protection is of paramount concern as well.  Welcoming this collaboration of a diversity of experts from our Hawaii State BLNR and DLNR, the USF&WS and EPA to make sure conserving our Kalihiwai Reservoir's wildlife refuge function is an important aspect in their analysis.  This can potentially increase the opportunity for our KRCA community to insure our ongoing wildlife-oriented recreation, increase our environmental education and awareness, improve water resources and quality, continue to benefit from its flood control function, all resulting in a more sustained, aesthetically pleasing natural landscape where endangered species can be observed living protected, healthy, thriving lives in lieu of their potential extinction.

In summary, what makes a wetland?  The vessel, the water and the plants, all combined.  They are all equally important, interdependent, and necessary to sustaining the endangered life we see thriving here.  Our wetland has been doing that beautifully for years when our vessel has been allowed to consistently stay at a full pool of no less than 16-18 fluctuation on the stick while accommodating for our fluctuating rainfall.  Diverse agency collaboration could bring potential oversight for sustaining this reliable water level, thus conserving much needed wetland habitat.  

It seems to me with ongoing evidence of climate change and our slow economic recovery we will need more than ever to have all parties and agencies concerned working together to meet these challenges in the years ahead.  While monitoring the safety of Kalihiwai Reservoir for the public, it also needs to be a top priority to have our endangered species protected and wetland habitat conserved as well by insuring Kalihiwai Reservoir is consistently maintained and operated to sustain its estimated over a mile full pool shoreline habitat kept at 16 on the stick.

Aloha, Maggie Lea