LAHAINA - Rapid development, fallow plantations and byproducts - like herbicides and pesticides still in the soil and abandoned dirt roads - as well as animal feces, landscaping fertilizer, treated wastewater and open storm water drains are all damaging West Maui's coral reefs, members of a multiagency nonprofit community task force announced last week.
But the task force has readied a plan to save or restore at least two coral reefs and is on the cusp of beginning remedial efforts, said West Maui Watershed and Coastal Management coordinator Tova Callender.
The draft Wahikuli-Honokowai Watershed Management Plan examines the causes of coral reef degradation and recommends solutions, along with estimated price tags and possible schedules for more assessments and then implementation of ways to improve the offshore environment.
The difference with this plan, compared to many existing ocean pollution studies, is that it looks mauka and for land-based causes, Callender said.
"We've been beating the hell out of the ocean from the ocean, and we've been beating the hell out of the ocean from the land," said Andy Hood, plan consultant and hydrologist/principal with Sustainable Resources Group Intn'l Inc.
However, implementing everything in the two-volume document would take years and millions of dollars, organizers and their materials said.
For the first time on Maui, though, there is a plan for two Valley Isle coral reefs, which they noted are integral to the island's tourism-based economy.
The first priority is to work with landowners of old corn seed, pineapple and sugar cane field roads. The team lists remedies such as grading, road dip and sediment-collection basins, according to a plan handout.
That's because the roads act as erosion funnels to the ocean during a storm, Hood said.
Everyone's seen those red clouds hang in the nearshore water for days after a heavy rain, he said. Not only does the sediment strangle the living coral, but chemicals from garbage, agriculture and landscaping can be deadly, too.
That's not to mention the "nutrients" still inside the treated wastewater that Maui County continues to put underground and into the ocean, according to the plan.
The Wahikuli and Honokowai watersheds in question are side by side and encompass 6,420 acres and 3.9 miles of shoreline and 5,631 acres and 1.7 miles of shoreline, respectively.
"Hopefully, we'll be sticking shovels into the ground by the end of the year," Callender said of plans for improvements.
Residents have until Oct. 31 to weigh in on the plan's second and final draft. It goes over the strategies and implementation methods. The first volume identified land uses and watershed conditions, then set priorities.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Conservation Program is leading the effort, said project manager Kathy Chaston.
"It seems like you're doing a lot to address reducing the sediment but not the chemicals inside it," said Penny Wakida, who spoke at a recent public meeting as a concerned West Maui resident. She also serves on the Maui Planning Commission.
Sediment is a focus of conservation efforts because it's most often the chemical conduit to coral, the plan's authors said. Plus, the entire region they plan to study in the new Ridge to Reef Program covers about 24,000 acres in West Maui. That's a lot of land. Most of it is made up of old plantations with lots of owners now who might not want to take part or make any contributions to the cause, officials said.
The county's Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility role involves pouring 3.5 million to 5 million gallons a day of nutrient-rich treated water underground using injection wells, Hood said. These nutrients have been blamed, at least in part, for killing coral and feeding algae blooms that strangle it.
Mayor Alan Arakawa has promised to redirect as much of the treated water as possible for irrigation.
By last account, 22 percent of what used to be county sewage and gray water poured underground now supplies golf courses and lawns. Former Mayor Charmaine Tavares planned to eliminate the county's 18 injection wells within a decade.
Four environmental groups also have sued the county in federal court demanding that the Lahaina facility get a special federal permit that sets limits on what pollutants can be discharged. While the facility does have an EPA administrative permit for the wells, federal officials also demanded that the treated water be disinfected.
Ridding West Maui of injection wells is estimated to take at least eight years and millions of dollars to build the pipes, pumps, power sources and reservoirs needed to irrigate farm fields, resorts and golf courses, according to the management plan.
The watershed management plan also calls for installing a series of mesh traps and other filter devices along gulches and dams to grab debris and dirt before it reaches the Pacific.
In town, the focus is on installing grates over storm water exits and installing more filter systems and planting particular flora that absorbs oil and other contaminants from streets and parking lots, Hood said.
But some county employees said they were concerned about whether they'd be able to keep up with cleaning out and maintaining the equipment, considering their staff cuts in recent years.
Hood said the group also met with a lot of the landowners, who "used the land to reap profits and have left it" to decay. If the owners will pitch in financially or more agriculture can somehow return, growing crops using treated irrigation is the best way to keep the sediment in place and the roads in good shape.
One concern is that if the watersheds' fields get hosed down with treated water just to get rid of the dense volcanic topsoil, weeds will sprout up, Hood said. Aside from exacerbating the invasive species problem, it would also worsen Maui's drought-induced brush fire hazards, he said.
Not everyone has to volunteer to dig trenches or empty grates of pop cans and twigs.
There are little things residents can do to protect Maui's reefs, such as washing your car on your lawn or disconnecting gutters to help water the grass, Callender said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Land and Natural Resources devoted $3 million to the Hawaii Ridge to Reef Program, which includes the Wahikuli-Honokowai plan, Chaston said.
The overall goal is to protect West Maui's Kahana, Honolua and Honokahua watersheds, too. There are a few similar projects under way on other islands.
As lead agency, NOAA will apply for grants to cover costs as the plan progresses, Chaston said.
The consultants said the effort is not about enforcing environmental regulation.
"Why don't you find out why and how the coral is dying first?" asked Native Hawaiian elder Leslie Kuloloio. He said something must be done, and the reefs "are a mess."
But people should know exactly what diseases are killing the coral before the government comes in and decides on cures, Kuloloio said.
Darla White, special projects coordinator for the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources, said officials know what kills coral. There's also a West Maui study under way.
Chaston added that a NOAA expert was out in the water last week collecting samples for the report.
"This plan is necessary, holistically, to sustain our whole life," said Native Hawaiian advocate Foster Ampong.
The participants do include some property owners as well as NOAA, EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, Maui County, state DLNR and Health departments, West Maui Mountains Watershed Partnership, Coral Reef Alliance, National Fish and Wildlife, Hawaii Community and Harold K.L. Castle foundations, and the Kaanapali Makai Watch.
Chaston said the group chooses reefs that can be saved. West Maui reportedly lost about 25 percent of its coral reefs in roughly the past decade. There are other Maui reefs reportedly virtually dead already.
Callender said she wants see people step up and become community facilitators who will shepherd other residents to help realize the plan.
"We need the community to get behind our goals," Callender said.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.