Though Maui County officials have already removed public recreational facilities at Malu'ulu o Lele Park in anticipation of the restoration of Loko o Mokuhinia, the former wetland that surrounded the ancient island of Moku'ula in West Maui, the proposed project is still a long way from becoming reality, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In order to secure federal approval and funding, the Army Corps must first find that the proposed project advances a federal interest that justifies "the further use of federal dollars to design and construct the project," Joseph Bonfiglio, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps in Honolulu, said in an email Tuesday.
"Federal interest in the Mokuhinia Ecosystem Restoration Project is based on the anticipated future use of the restored site by the Hawaiian stilt and coot, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and by migratory water and shorebirds," he said.
Loko o Mokuhinia was once a 17-acre pond that surrounded the ancient island of Moku‘ula, which served as the royal residence of King Kamehameha III in the 19th century. The pond was filled in 1914, but the county and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are exploring the feasibility of a project to restore the Mokuhinia ecosystem.
Maui County and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo
The proposed Mokuhinia Ecosystem Restoration Project includes excavation to intercept the existing groundwater, grading to provide shallow wetland slopes and microtopographic variation, installation of a ground-water well and pump to supplement groundwater levels, installation of an outlet to an adjacent ditch, planting native wetland vegetation and installation of a predator-proof fence as part of the effort to protect the federally recognized endangered bird species.
The proposed project would cost an estimated $11.5 million, according to a draft integrated feasibility study and environmental assessment published Friday. The draft document reported an anticipated finding of no significant impact, which may be a step in the right direction for securing approval for the project, though funding is more uncertain, corps officials said.
"It is impossible to predict future federal budgets, and the corps cannot speculate on pending legislation and future budgets," Bonfiglio said.
However, if approved and funded, the project is expected to be completed in 2018.
Mokuhinia bears not just federal interest but cultural significance for the county and community advocacy group Friends of Moku'ula, which for years has been lobbying for the resurrection of the pond and inland island that once served as the royal residence of King Kamehameha III. From 1837 to 1845, Moku'ula served as the royal residence of the king, before the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom was relocated to Honolulu in 1845, the draft document said. Mokuhinia is cited in Hawaiian moolelo, or traditions, as the home of the moo akua, or lizard goddess, Kihawahine, who was the protective deity of the Maui royal family line that gave rise to King Kamehameha III.
The island and the 17-acre pond that once surrounded Moku'ula now sit about 2 to 3 feet underground in the county park located mauka of Front Street between Shaw Street and Mokuhinia Way. In the early 20th century, the pond had become stagnated and was filled "for hygienic and development purposes" in 1914, state records show.
While the corps only is involved with the restoration of the Mokuhinia wetland ecosystem as a habitat for the endangered shorebirds, the county and Friends of Moku'ula are engaged in a larger effort to revitalize and preserve the historic and archaeological features of Moku'ula and to establish an area reserved for future use by the Friends of Moku'ula, according to the draft document.
"The ultimate goal here is to restore Moku'ula island to what it was prior to it being buried," said Blossom Feiteira, who became Friends of Moku'ula executive director in May. "We know it was a sacred retreat of the alii lines, but it is (now) a cultural site buried under tons of rocks and debris. We need to provide opportunities for Native Hawaiians to understand our political history here in Lahaina."
"It's such a complex project that there's still so much discussion that needs to happen," said Zeke Kalua, executive assistant to Mayor Alan Arakawa, assigned to Lahaina, Molokai and Hawaiian affairs.
"But Moku'ula is beneficial to the entire state of Hawaii, it's really about recognition of culturally sensitive areas," he said. "Moku'ula is known by many as the original capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii . . . and bringing it back will potentially help with the unification of the islands."
Ultimately, the fate of the project will depend on available funding, Kalua said. If the proposed project were approved, the federal government and the county would share the cost of the redevelopment, Bonfiglio said. No funds for the actual reconstruction work have been allocated by the federal and county governments, he added. The feasibility study was fully funded by the federal government.
"If it happens that we are not going to move forward with the project, we're going to at least try to secure the area and maintain it," Kalua said. Maintenance would involve tree-trimming, weeding and landscaping, he added.
To compensate for the public facilities that were removed from Malu'ulu o Lele Park, the county has resurfaced community basketball courts, added four more tennis courts to the Lahaina Civic Center compound and accepted the dedication of new baseball fields near the Boys & Girls Clubs of Maui - Lahaina, Kalua said.
A public meeting hosted by the county and the corps is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 5 at the Lahaina Civic Center.
A similar meeting was held last year "to get a feel for what people want to see," while this meeting is to keep the public informed and also to "see what direction the community is comfortable with moving forward," Kalua said.
Written comments will be accepted until Sept. 23 and may be submitted to Athline Clark, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Honolulu District, CEPOH-PP-C Building 230, Fort Shafter 96858-5440 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hard copies of the draft feasibility report and environmental assessment will be available at the Lahaina, Kahului and Wailuku public libraries, as well as online at www.mokuhiniaproject.com.
For more information, contact Clark at (808) 835-4032 or Kalua at 270-7855.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.