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Kihei flood plan, 10 years in draft stage, is almost complete

Stranded cars are towed from the flooded intersection of South Kihei Road and Kaonoulu Street on March 7, the latest flood episode in the area, which the county hopes to relieve through a South Maui Drainage Master plan. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A draft plan to ease flooding along South Kihei Road has taken almost 10 years to complete, but is close to fruition and scheduled to be presented to the public in the next several months.

“It is (in) the pre-final draft stage, but Public Works is planning to present it to the Kihei Community Association sometime this summer, as they had made an earlier request to see it,” said Public Works Director David Goode, about a week after the latest flood from rainwater and runoff hit South Kihei Road, swamping parking lots and cars and prompting the rescue of seven people in four vehicles stalled or trapped in waters along the road.

This was just one of multiple flood episodes over the years, which the county has acknowledged happen when heavy rains Upcountry send water down gulches to naturally drain into the ocean off South Maui.

Goode said the South Maui Drainage Master plan is an effort that started almost 10 years ago “to understand where the flooding occurs, why it occurs and what improvements at what cost are needed to help alleviate flooding.”

He explained that it has taken almost a decade as the “plan area is huge,” from Waiakoa Gulch in north Kihei to Kilohana Drive at the entrance to Wailea.

Eroded sand dunes and a large pond at the end of Kulanihakoi Gulch are evidence of recent flooding on South Kihei Road. For years Kihei residents have been concerned about the flooding along South Kihei Road. Almost 10 years ago the county began work on a master plan for drainage in the area. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

He said there were a lot of survey data, number crunching and options that had to be analyzed.

Goode declined to get into the details of the plan and said he would discuss more when the draft comes out.

Maui County Communications Director Rod Antone said that the plan had already “been on the books” when Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration came back on board in 2011.

That plan involved land acquisition but the new version does not. The previous plan was estimated to cost $57 million while the current plan is expected to cost less, Antone said.

The plan will be a welcome sight to the Kihei Community Association, which has been asking to see the master plan for a couple of years, as well as to South Maui residents who have witnessed multiple floods over the years that have shut down South Kihei Road — one of the main thoroughfares in South Maui — swamping cars, parking lots and residences.

The flood that occurred March 7 is similar to others in the past where heavy rains on the island, particularly Upcountry, lead to volumes of water coming down in gulches that feed into the ocean in South Maui. This month’s flood swamped South Kihei Road from the old Suda Store area in north Kihei to the Azeka development, Antone said.

Mike Moran, president of the Kihei Community Association, said that the call to do something about South Kihei Road flooding hit a high point around six years ago when there were heavy rains in December and January. A “flood forum” was held with KCA and another group, but after that momentum died down.

Every time it rains and flooding occurs, KCA receives calls from residents wanting action. After the March 7 flood, the association received around 10 calls. One person sent in photos taken from a drone witnessing the flooding and another person sent in a video of the “raging” Kulanihakoi Gulch from which waters overflowed onto South Kihei Road.

Moran said that KCA has been speaking with the county’s Public Work’s Department and has been asking about the Drainage Master Plan, which he understand is “getting pretty close” to being finished.

“Our understanding is the major problem is Kulanihakoi (Gulch),” Moran said. “That whole area.”

“I think that is one of the large ones, that’s the one that does the most devastation to our area,” Moran said.

He added that even with smaller rainstorms, the intersection at Kaonoulu Street and South Kihei Road near Kulanihakoi Gulch is the one that floods.

The nearby Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary has been hit hard by the flooding, as have vehicles in the nearby Kihei Bay Vista parking lot.

In the March 7 flood, Antone thinks that Kulanihakoi Gulch was the only one to have water flow over South Kihei Road. He said that the speed of the water did not actually cause the flooding, but it was the volume of the water.

“We don’t have a measurement, but it is safe to say that it’s more than we’ve seen in some years now,” Antone said.

In the last 10 years, residents have seen South Kihei Road flood multiple times.

In December, Kalama Park and South Kihei Road were flooded, turning the park into a shallow pool and leading at least one person to paddle a kayak at Nohokai Street and Uluniu Road in Kihei. The Kulanihakoi Gulch also filled up, flooding part of South Kihei Road and stalling cars, an area resident said.

In January 2011, five days of heavy rains turned South Kihei Road into a muddy river and houses and cars were swamped. People’s properties near the Kihei McDonald’s were inundated with water and pumps were needed to get the water out. The January 2011 rains followed those in December 2010, which also caused flooding. In December 2007, residents said the water runoff was so high that it moved cars parked along Kulanihakoi Street.

Most of the flooding is a natural occurrence and one that the county cannot totally prevent.

Kihei was developed in the 1970s, according to a draft Maui Island Plan document. The area at that time was sparsely populated with around 1,600 residents and was primarily agricultural.

Business and political leaders began to look at the area as the island’s next residential, resort and employment center.

Goode said that development occurred in the flood plain before flood zoning came into effect.

“But this is a common practice throughout the world — civilizations generally build close to water sources such as rivers, streams and springs on land that is flat and accessible to other resources,” Goode said.

He said that the South Maui Drainage Master plan looks to minimize flooding effects, “but no improvement will ever eliminate it given a large enough storm and the limited funding to construct improvements.”

In the meantime, Public Works crews will continue to be “very diligent” in clearing culverts and drainage on a regular basis, Goode said.

He added that crews know where the problems are and do advance work when the forecast includes a tropical storm, which would cause flooding.

Goode said that crews always respond to calls from the Maui Police Department when flooding occurs, even in the middle of the night.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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