A brief history of wetlands in Kihei

Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono – The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.

If we do the right thing by the land, the land lives, and gives us life. We need to make caring for the land our number one priority.  However, in the present day, many people see land primarily as a commodity or asset, and nature is seen a blank canvas to be developed.

The early Hawaiians valued the land most highly, and spiritually. They prized water so much that the word for wealth (wai wai) comes from the word for fresh water (wai). Wetlands, streams, and springs were regarded as the best land. Kings and chiefs would often claim these springs, pools, and wetlands for themselves.  Moku’ula in Lahaina was once a natural pool, that was modified into a fishpond and then into a royal palace.

In Kihei, wetlands, streams, pools, and nearshore fishponds were the sources of agriculture and produced food for kings and commoners.

Deforestation in the Kula highlands in the 1800’s caused mass siltation and flooding and the rich wetlands of Kihei became less productive over time, and the once-thriving population slowly moved away. The remaining wetlands persisted, and many of the deep freshwater pools became shallower and all but dried up. However, the underground streams, and aquifers remained and steadily fed the remaining wetlands, as they flowed to the ocean.

Storms and flash flooding kept bringing dirty stormwater down the mountain, and nearshore areas of the floodplain, the soil in the flatlands tell the story of successive flooding events alternating between calmer times of freshwater pools.

In the 1920’s the uplands were reforested with non-native trees. (Polipoli redwoods) and flooding was reduced.

Prior to World War 2 (WW2): The areas of Kula Kai were seen as unfit for development or habituation, and only a small population resided there. However, the ones who lived here enjoyed the pools the open beaches and the abundant fish in the ocean. Families from upcountry would also come to camp in Kula Kai for months at a time and throw out their nets to catch food. Limu, lobster, and mullet were plentiful.

During WW The beaches, floodplain, and upland areas were used to train the military and reefs and wetlands were extensively damaged.

After WW People started to move back into the area.

The mid-20th century re-settlers of Kihei thought of wetlands as “swamps”, that could be tamed, drained, or filled in for development. Streams were diverted, and large chunks of wetlands were displaced. Wetlands were not recognized, valued, or protected. They were more of an afterthought.

By 1965 Kihei (Kula Kai) still had around 200 acres of wetlands remaining but as more people moved in, that amount steadily declined. And because Kihei was never seriously considered as a habitable area, there was never any organized land use designations. And no streams, gulches, springs, or wetlands were officially recognized or designated.

All the land was eventually sold into private hands, and many homes were built on the dunes, and in the wetlands. The floodplain of Kihei was developed without regard to flooding events, or normal urban planning. There were no uniform or coordinated efforts to create a drainage infrastructure or protect natural areas. So over time, more wetlands, streams, and gulches were covered over, or encroached upon.

By 1990’s there were just 111 acres of wetlands remaining. Or should we say, “left exposed”.  The underground infrastructure in most cases remains. Although builders and developers tended to avoid the wetlands, they eventually built into all the easy places, and the only remaining open spaces on the floodplain, and are the flood ways, drainage areas, gulches streambeds, and wetlands. And by 2000 we had lost another 28 acres to developers filling in the wetlands to build.

So, the situation we are in today is a scarcity of land on the floodplain, and developers are now targeting the remaining areas for development. Most remaining wetlands and associated tributaries in Kula-Kai are under threat of development and need to be protected.

Unfortunately, we are in this position because of “reverse planning”, We should have been setting aside these areas from the beginning, instead of trying to save them one at a time each time some development is proposed.

This all ties into to how we see land, how we treat land, and how we value it.

It is only now that we are realizing just how valuable our wetlands and streams are to our own community and economy. Natural disasters cause massive damage and cost taxpayers’ millions.  FEMA has stepped in and made participation in flood control a prerequisite for any county wanting to buy flood insurance. So now at least these wetlands and streams are being reclassified as flood zones.

These wetlands and streams are being recognized as floodways, drainage ways, and unsuitable for habitation. Our current building codes are meant to conform to the FEMA plan to mitigate flooding risks.

However, we are now standing at a crossroads, where these wetland areas can either be built into manmade drainage canals, concrete rivers, and drainage ditches. Or maybe they can be utilized in their natural state for, “Indigenous Watershed Infrastructure” instead.

There is a growing science and awareness of the vital role natural wetlands play in flood mitigation. Wetlands are acknowledged as the “kidneys of our watershed”, as they can filter water and protect the ocean from land-based pollution. They also act as giant sponges that hold water and slow floods, protecting human life and property. We have also learned how wetlands protect our coral reefs, and the shoreline itself in a mutually supportive system. If left alone, wetlands do a fantastic job by themselves, and they are responsive to changing conditions, and they are self-configuring.

These days we are shifting our priorities from building more, to protecting what we have already built. Global warming, sea level rise, and climate change make our future uncertain, and we will need our wetlands more than ever.

The wetlands too will be changing and adapting to environmental conditions also. Sea-level-rise will also raise the water tables and re-hydrate once dry wetlands, and shoreline retreat will also cause wetlands to migrate as well.

We need to expand our understanding of the wetlands and their role in climate change, and flood mitigation, and utilize them as the natural assets that they are. In addition to the wonderful benefits wetlands bring to ecology, and biodiversity, as habitats, and biological buffers, they are also the engineers of our salvation.

How can we help?

  • Our Hui is taking the next steps in recognizing the at-risk wetlands and expanding our understanding and definitions to include the wetland sub-systems, and associated watershed functions.
  • We are working to connect the public and community groups with the environment and decision makers.
  • We are attempting to educate and enlighten our community and our administrators so that we can all see, appreciate, and value, our wetlands. We can create a shared-vision, and a shared-mission to protect them.

We will need all parts of our society working together to protect our wetlands, so each one of use has a part to play in this story.

We need our wetlands to survive, and the wetlands need us too.

The life of the land is dependent on the wetlands and we too are dependent on them for our lives as well. The wetlands protect the sea from the land and the land from the sea. And they are one of the vital organs for our island’s living biosphere, just as water is the blood of our living world.

We hope that each of you will help us on our mission to protect the wetlands, and to save ourselves in the process.

Mahalo.