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Engineer has ideas to save Kanaha Pond

October 23, 2011
By HARRY EAGAR - Staff Writer ( , The Maui News


Norman Saito is 84 years old, and he had never felt like speaking about local issues until he read recent news stories about the difficulties of managing Maui's remaining wetland ponds.

An engineer whose personal experience with drainage works goes back to the 1950s, he has some ideas about what is causing the problems and some cheap solutions.

Article Photos

Norman Saito poses in his Wailuku office Saturday. The longtime Maui engineer has put his experience with drainage issues to work brainstorming solutions for the Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Refuge, where a broken pump and drought have left the wetlands high and dry.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

"You don't have to pump. Instead of pumping, you go down to the water."

Maui's wetlands face many difficulties, but a main one is that they are no longer reliably wet. Development over the generations has cut off the natural movement of groundwater. Earlier this year, the pump at Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary failed, which explains the white crust it has sported for most of this summer.

Fern Duvall, a wildlife biologist who manages the pond for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, agrees with Saito that development has interfered with natural water flows.

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The flows are not obvious, Saito says. In the old days there were springs and streams, but even where surface water did not show, groundwater seeped toward the low spot.

Over the years, the Fairgrounds, the Kahului Industrial Area, parts of Dream City and much of commercial Kahului were filled in or dried out - or both - leaving Kanaha Pond just a small patch of a valuable wetland that extended to where Queen Ka'ahumanu Center was built.

Saito points out that there is a source of millions of gallons of fresh water right across Amala Place from the pond, and it's higher than the pond. It's the effluent from the Kahului Wastewater Treatment Plant.

He thinks the county should run a pipe across the road and let the water trickle into the pond.

Ruefully, Duvall says he cannot do that, though it has been suggested by the county, which would like to get rid of the water. Environmental Protection Agency rules forbid using treated wastewater in an endangered bird habitat.

This is ironic, says Duvall, since sewage settling ponds, rich in organic matter, are favorite sites for water birds. On the Mainland, there is even a sewage lagoon tourism sector, where birders flock to the artificial wetlands to see their big diversity of birdlife.

Saito is not out of ideas, though.

At Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, roads and other drainage diversions have dried out the ponds.

Saito suggests a moat, a very shallow one, only 6 to 12 inches deep around the periphery.

"Not down to sea level."

This moat would just barely reach the water table, siphoning in water which could be directed into the pond.

It would also create a sort of island, offering some protection to nesting birds from predators.

This suggestion is the flip side of the situation at Kanaha, where two canals, very shallow, intercept groundwater before it reaches the ponds. Duvall says a hydrological study a few years ago found that groundwater was more than 2 feet higher on the outside of the canals than on the inside. They were catching the water and taking it to the harbor.

Saito has another idea for Kealia. Maui Electric Co. pumps up water to cool its generators, then disposes of the water in an injection well.

Pipe it to the pond, suggests Saito. It wouldn't be enough, but it would help. There would have to be a cooling pond to bring the temperature down, and salinity and pH would have to be carefully watched, but it wouldn't require a pump.

Duvall said he was delighted Saito had drawn on his engineering expertise to brainstorm improvements for an important Central Maui wetland.

"That's great," he said. "It's great people are concerned. It's really good."

* Harry Eagar can be reached at "Neighbors: Profiles of Our Community" is a periodical feature about everyday people who make the Maui community unique. To nominate someone for a "Neighbors" feature, email The Maui News at



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