Hopes are being raised for restored health of one of the most severely impacted coral reefs in the state in West Maui, with the signing Tuesday of a $3 million state and federal cost-sharing agreement to develop a watershed plan for the West Maui "Ridge to Reef" Initiative.
The initiative is one of the first efforts in the state to implement a comprehensive management strategy to address impacts to coral reefs across multiple watersheds, according to a news release from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Honolulu.
The agency is contributing 75 percent of the funding for the initiative, with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources providing the other 25 percent.
A stream carries sediment into the ocean in Honokowai after a storm.
CARL KANGAS photo
"It's exciting that it's officially launching," said Liz Foote, Hawaii field manager for the nonprofit Coral Reef Alliance and part of the working group for the initiative. "The fact that resources will be coordinated across county, state and federal agencies is significant and will facilitate the implementation of projects that reduce land-based pollution that harms our reefs. West Maui has lost about a quarter of its coral reefs over the past 13 years, and our community and economy can't afford to lose more of our reefs.
"Ultimately, we want to see the health of the reef system restored so that it becomes more of a sustainable resource and it supports the local economy and culture and thrives again and continues to thrive."
The initiative will involve federal and state agencies and organizations to implement a strategy to reduce the threats of land-based pollution to coral reefs in West Maui.
The proposed 24,000-acre West Maui Watershed study area extends from Kaanapali to Honolua and from the summit of Puu Kukui to the outer reef. It includes the watersheds of Wahikuli, Honokowai, Kahana, Honokahua and Honolua.
As an initial step, federal agencies and organizations are funding technical studies and public education efforts to support the watershed plan.
According to the Army Corps news release, DLNR and other agencies will implement priority "on-the-ground" actions as they are identified, while comprehensive strategy is being developed for the watershed plan.
Without dramatic steps to restore favorable conditions, reefs statewide risk rapid degradation, according to the news release. It says that while causes of coral reef decline are complex and not fully understood, land-based pollution is known to be a serious threat to coral reef ecosystems. Increased sedimentation associated with loss of forest land, historical agriculture practices, stream channelization, and rapid development has affected coral reef health.
"The islands and reefs are connected; what we do on land affects the reef," said William Aila Jr., DLNR chairman. "Recognizing this relationship, the state understands that an integrated and comprehensive approach to reduce land-based sources of pollution is one of the most important steps to help restore coral reef ecosystems. Healthy coral reefs are vital to our island lifestyle, economy, and a thriving Native Hawaiian culture."
By supporting the initiative, "the Corps is continuing its commitment to improving the stewardship and sustainability of Hawaii's watersheds and near-shore habitats," said Lt. Col. Thomas Asbery, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Honolulu district.
"The signing of this cost-share agreement represents more than a decade of hard work and tireless efforts made by federal, state, local leaders and the community to preserve and protect the aina," he said.
Foote said that one of the first official projects supported by the initiative seeks to work with hotels in the Kaanapali region to involve them more closely in the watershed management planning process and to facilitate their transition to using more reclaimed water in their operations, reducing the amount of nutrient-laden wastewater that ends up affecting the near-shore reef system. The Coral Reef Alliance is coordinating the project, which is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Hawaii Community Foundation and Harold K.L. Castle Foundation.
Foote said the initiative also "will support and fund the remediation of key agricultural roads in Kaanapali, which are contributing significantly to the erosion and sedimentation that greatly harms our reefs."
The West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative expands on the 2011 U.S. Coral Reef Task Force designated priority partnership for the Kaanapali to Kahekili area.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture - Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Health, West Maui Mountains Watershed Partnership and Kaanapali Makai Watch also are assisting in the initiative.
"We have been working in the mauka watershed since 1998," said Chris Brosius, coordinator for the West Maui Mountains Watershed Partnership. "We are happy to see this initiative start to expand conservation from mauka to makai."
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.