Seeing 2020: The next decade on Kauai, Part I

Jon Letman

The following three-part series examines the opportunities and challenges Kauaʻi may face in the new decade. Looking ahead to the next 10 years on the Garden Island, eight respected members of the community talk about tourism, transport, food, energy, climate change, conservation and other matters that will shape life for everyone on Kauaʻi.

Consider this: 10 years ago, nobody was talking about H1N1, Gitmo or Twitter. At the dawn of the year 2000, there was no SARS, no YouTube, no toxic assets and no Department of Homeland Security. If you’d have mentioned the names Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, the response probably would have been “who?” George W. Bush was one of a dozen candidates campaigning for the GOP nomination, September 11 was like any other day, and Katrina was just a name.

When the calendar page turned from 1999–2000, no one on Kauaʻi imagined the next decade would see the Kaloko Dam fail or that, in 2010, Coco Palms would still be decaying beside the highway. Who anticipated the demise of Aloha Airlines, Gay & Robinson, or a proposed landfill in the middle of Kauaʻi Coffee? A decade ago the “Super Ferry” just as well could have been a pixie with extraordinary powers.

In some ways, Y2K wasn’t that long ago—in others it was another age completely. But just think, in 10 short years we’ll be looking back at 2010 as a simpler, more carefree age.

Where will Kauaʻi be in 2020? What are the problems we, as an island, face and what are some of the best ways to address these challenges today to create a better future for our children tomorrow?

“The key to a successful future is self-reliance, sustainability and economic diversification.”

Arguably the previous decade, with its numerous dramas and shocks of terrorism, climate change, peak oil, global pandemics, natural disasters, soaring costs and economic collapse have driven home the point that the 63,000 of us and the million plus tourists we host each year are not insulated from forces beyond these shores.

It would only take one major cyber attack, one terrorist incident, or the rapid spread of a new disease and Kauaʻi (the whole state really) would be, at least temporarily, left to fend for itself. Talk of when the boats (and planes) stop coming begs the question, “So what are we going to do about it?”

As an island, we import 90 percent or more of the food we consume and nearly all our energy. It’s often pointed out that there is only enough food on Kauaʻi to feed the island for 3–7 days at any given time. This sobering reality has played an important role in energizing re-localization efforts and the drive to make ourselves more self-reliant.

One of the biggest proponents of local food production on Kauaʻi has been Glenn Hontz, director of Kauaʻi Community College (KCC)‘s Food & Agriculture Career Training Program. Hontz—along with college administrators, the Kauaʻi County Farm Bureau and local farmers—was instrumental in starting the newest Saturday morning farmer’s market on the KCC campus. He works closely with groups like Malama Kauaʻi, Nectar Gardens and the Seed to Table Program to help spread practical knowledge of how to produce food successfully for home and commercial consumption. Yet Hontz is ambivalent about where Kauaʻi is headed on its path to becoming a self-feeding island.

“My optimistic side tells me we are making great progress toward achieving food self-sufficiency via our rapidly developing network of home and community gardens and small commercial farms,” Hontz says. “We have the land, climate and know-how to become self-sufficient. However, my pessimistic side tells me we may not achieve the necessary level of productivity in time to avert the full impact of the food crisis.”

Hontz says in order for independent local food production to work, sufficient land restoration, an adequate labor force and the logistical and technical ability to spread the “how-to” information are all necessary.

“It takes training and on-going technical assistance to become successful at growing food. Sadly, too many of us want someone else to learn how,” Hontz says. Still, he prefers to listen to his “optimistic voice” and continues pushing to advance the groundwork required for Kauaʻi to feed itself by 2020.

Green economist Ken Stokes calls the job of becoming self-reliant a “monstrously creative challenge.” He also expects that changing Kauaiʻs food production model will create a lot of “great jobs” in the next decade.

According to Stokes, Kauaiʻs future food model will need to be free of fossil fuels and include crops more resilient to a climate that scientists have documented is already becoming hotter, drier and more prone to flooding. Farmers will have to find new, innovative ways to manage soil, water and shade in response to climate change, Stokes says.

Stokes envisions Kauaiʻs towns ringed by gardens and farms close enough to homes that people can walk or bike to work and food distribution can be done more locally. He points to an abundance of vacant land such as gullies that could be used to produce both food and energy for Kauaʻi.

The question of how Kauaʻi will fuel itself is one that Stokes and others spend a lot of time thinking about. And while many on Kauaʻi changed their driving habits somewhat during the dramatic spike in world oil prices during the summer of 2008, most people have grown accustomed to paying more than three dollars a gallon at the pump and think nothing of driving halfway around the island to their favorite beach.

In the coming decade, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that fuel and energy costs will do anything but increase, very likely to levels never before imagined. Stokes is certainly not alone when he says, “We’re running out of oil.” But he also doesn’t necessarily belong to the camp that worries about when the boats stop coming.

“People tend to focus on the fear factor,” Stokes says. “My expectation is that by 2020 we will have stood that notion [of being cut off] on its head. Kauaʻi has the capacity to produce far more renewable energy than we’ll ever need.” Stokes goes so far as to suggest Kauaʻi could some day be exporting energy.

Stokes acknowledges the transition from an oil-based society will be “wrenching.” Yet he also sees building new systems of energy production and retrofitting homes and offices as a coming wave of green jobs that will benefit Kauaiʻs economy.

“Our future prosperity will be predicated on a whole new rack of industries. From a financial perspective, green jobs are the only place to put your money,” Stokes says. “Instead of putting money into your 401K, put it into PV cells on your roof and five to ten years out you will have a better return on your investment.”

Kauaʻi also faces questions of storage. Not only where we “store” ourselves (housing), but where we put our waste.

Former mayor and council member JoAnn Yukimura sees the lack of affordable housing on Kauaʻi and is concerned that given the current weak state of the real estate market, people may mistake more available rentals for an improvement in the situation. If the economy recovers markedly, she says, the lack of affordable housing will again be exacerbated.

“We should be building affordable housing now when construction costs are lower,” Yukimura says. Unless we do so, Yukimura fears more residential properties will be swallowed up for vacation rentals and housing construction workers during future economic boom times, leaving many more people unable to afford a home. She says more affordable units like Paʻanau in Kōloa are needed.

Homelessness on Kauaʻi may increase in the next 10–20 years as younger generations enter the workforce and start their own families. Yukimura worries about what will happen a decade from now when recently built affordable housing complexes like the Courtyards at Waipouli and others are released into the open market and no longer limited to affordable housing prices.

“Affordable housing needs to be insulated from the market and remain affordable in perpetuity,” she says. “Hawaiʻi is always in danger of becoming a home and playground for the rich where local people are priced out of the market.”

If the economy experiences a robust recovery, Yukimura expects more foreign investment in resort and other developments on Kauaʻi, particularly from China. At the same time, she acknowledges the world may be entering unprecedented times. If global economic contraction continues or accelerates, questions of construction booms and rampant tourism will likely become moot.

From housing and education to energy and food production, Yukimura says there needs to be a sense of urgency accompanied by real action in order to weather any coming storms.

However, she says, “I don’t see that sense of urgency.”

Yukimura, who is active with half a dozen groups, boards and advisory committees, also works with Zero Waste Kauaʻi, a nonprofit group seeking to redirect how Kauaʻi residents and businesses dispose of their solid waste.

An example of a Waste To Energy plant facility from the Energy Recovery Council.

“We have to change the mindset that waste is just waste and move toward seeing it as a resource,” she says. Citing the rising cost of oil and its direct effect on manufacturing and shipping, Yukimura says that Kauaʻi, as a community, needs to respond to the reality of peak oil. “Our system is so geared toward cheap oil and waste. We have to change that.”

In explaining how waste can become a commodity, Yukimura refers to a program on Maui supported by the county that turns green waste and sewage sludge into quality soil conditioner (EKO Soil Conditioner). “It’s called ‘import substitution’—substituting for things you import while helping recirculate money locally.”

Yukimura sees a different approach toward waste as not only necessitated by physical and financial limitations, but also as having the potential to diversify and invigorate the economy, help safeguard the environment and improve Kauaʻi’s overall liveability.

Major changes in how Kauaʻi views and handles waste, combined with improvements in energy and food self-reliance, the continued investment in supporting a strong cultural community and good land planning that preserves Kauaʻi’s beauty, could all contribute to a future tourism sector that is based on more sustainable, not “blockbuster” levels.

“Tourists will keep coming even if they have to come by ship. There may be ships with sails and photovoltaic cells, but people will find a way to visit,” she says. “If we plan well and act with a sense of urgency, we can have a beautiful and sustainable place to live regardless of whether or not tourists come.”

The key to a successful future, according to Yukimura, is self-reliance, sustainability and economic diversification. That, and for people on Kauaʻi to continue to help one another, especially during hard times.

“The generally caring, giving nature of people on Kauaʻi will play a big role in facing these and future challenges,” says Yukimura, who was mayor during the 1992 Hurricane ʻIniki. The same spirit of sharing and helping each other, she says, is still the predominant force of the people of Kauaʻi today, is what most give her cause for optimism.

Looking ahead 10 years and beyond, Yukimura says that “if we make it over the hump, it’s going to be because of this.”

Part II of this three-part series will examine possible changes to Kauaʻi’s tourism-based economy, its energy supply and island transportation in the new decade.