Federal funds encourage best practices in Waimanalo’s watershed

Colleen Sanders

WAIMANALO—Approximately $200,000 in federal funds were recently released to encourage farmers in the Waimanalo watershed to install practices on their land that improve the functioning of the watershed.

Eligible projects will serve to reduce erosion, conserve water usage, and preserve the natural integrity of the water.

For each practice, up to 70 percent could be covered by grant funds, which are federally dispensed by the Department of Health but enabled locally by the Oahu Resource and Development Council (ORCD). While each project will be defined by the specific site, there are some suggested starting points, like grass waterways.

“If you have an area of erosion where water is always ponding,” said Jean Brokish of the ORCD, “put grass in and stabilize the slope. Then you prevent soil from going into the streams. Another practice we’re interested in is composting facilities, so if someone has a lot of green waste or animals we could actually pay for a portion of their composting. They have to pay the other portion of course, but the key is whatever the money is being used for is achieving some sort of progress for cleaner water.”

Mulch, terraces, and vegetative barriers could also serve the purpose.

Brokish indicated there has already been some applications for the funds, which could be integrated into existing conservation plans farmers have in place. “Generally most farmers are interested in protecting their soil because it’s their livelihood,” Brockish said. “Some farmers are already doing things on their own—they recognized the problem three years ago and they’ve already done it.”

The funding is part of a larger effort to clean up the Koolaupoko watershed. In 2001, the Department of Health conducted a routine sample of the surface water in Waimanalo and found the water was not meeting federal standards for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment content. “All of those things are natural in the environment,” explained Brokish. “It’s hard to know how much of it is natural and how much of it is human additions. It’s not really possible to say exactly where these pollutants are coming from. But we didn’t want to just do another project getting more data; we wanted to spend the money getting stuff on the ground.”

The waterbody is currently on the 303(d) list, making it eligible for federal cleanup funds, which the ORCD enables locally.

“Waimanalo isn’t unique,” Brockish said. “There are a number of projects in Hawaii where watersheds have been determined to be polluted and so they’ve used federal dollars. So it’s not like Waimanalo is excessively bad.”

The Waimanalo watershed encompasses land that drains into the Waimanalo Stream and the Kahawai Stream. The western boundary includes all lands along Mahiku Place, the eastern boundary lies between Kaulukanu and Mokulama Streets. Grant funds are prioritized for the approximately 800 acres used for small scale agricultural operations within the watershed, including fruit and vegetable farms, orchards, nurseries, and livestock operations. The boundary of the Waimanalo watershed is the top of Koolaupoko and Koolauloa, where streams form and come through mostly agricultural lands—a lot of small fruit and vegetable and nursery operations. Streams then proceed makai through the more residential area of Waimanalo, then through the military lands, the golf course, and Bellows Air Force Base.

“There’s about 40, 50, maybe 70 farmers in this very small area—it’s about 800 acres of agricultural lands that we’re focusing on,” Brockish said. “Not all of the 800 acres is farms—there’s quite a few pockets of residential or state conservation lands.”

As to whether the released moneys will equate to a passing grade the next time the federal DOH tests the waters, Brokish said: “I think there will be some improvements but I don’t think it will be enough. If we go back two years from now and sample the water will it be clean? Probably not, because there are so many other factors that influence the water quality.”

The improvements, however, do serve the role of keeping up the best practices to help the watershed and steer farmers toward making their operations more efficient and sustainable. After all, agriculture is not the only human factor influencing water quality.

“It’s not just the farms,” Brokish said. “It’s some of the urban developments, non-functioning cesspools, or septic systems. Those kinds of things are all contributing. That may be something another organization may take up in the future.”

Improvements to agricultural water—surface waters—pay off in town, as well, where drinking water comes from underground reservoirs.

“What we do on the surface affects the groundwater and what we do on the mountains affects the ocean,” Brockish said.