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Errors discussed in river fish kill

Water panel reflects on fish ladder project

LAHAINA — Improved community engagement, better communication among stakeholders and unrestricted water flow were among lessons that state water commissioners discussed in the wake of a pilot project that accidentally killed hundreds of native fish in Wailuku River last month.

The state Commission on Water Resource Management staff outlined the project during a meeting last week in Lahaina, heard testimony from community members and discussed steps to prevent the outcome from happening again. Also, commissioners continued to apologize for the incident.

“When I think about our roles as trustees of this precious resource, it’s not just about gallons, it’s about the life that those gallons support,” said commissioner Neil Hannahs. “As trustees, we should feel a profound sense of sadness for the loss of this treasured species. I hope we have expressed that sense of loss as well as a sense of regret for any ways we may have contributed to this situation as unintended as it was.”

Hundreds of ‘o’opu, or Hawaiian goby, were inadvertently killed late last month during the state’s fish ladder construction project. Water was diverted during the work but after completion, water levels were not restored to adequate levels, especially to the lower reaches of Wailuku River.

Community members scrambled to try and save ‘o’opu by carrying them upstream.

The project was intended to improve the habitat in the river, including the fish, shrimp and snails, by constructing a fish ladder on a 22-foot vertical man-made drop in the river so native species could move up and down the stream.

The state Commission on Water Resource Management had Wailuku Water Co. and Mahi Pono divert flows Oct. 28 and 29 to ensure safety for contractors at the site.

It was the water commission’s first project of its kind in the state.

“I want to also say this is our first fish ladder, we are not used to doing this kind of project ourselves. We are used to monitoring other people do it. . . . So obviously, we have a lot of learning to do,” state water commission Chairwoman Suzanne Case said at the Nov. 20 meeting.

She also noted that variables, such as climate change, drought, heat, daytime versus nighttime and tides, have large impacts on a delicate waterway such as Wailuku River, which loses flows toward its mouth.

Commissioners said better communication was needed to notify diverters about restoring water flow. A text initially was sent upon project completion Oct. 29, but the formal notice did not go out until two days later.

Also, staff said community engagement needed to happen during the planning phases of the project.

“Another thing I think we’ve learned is the importance of community knowledge . . . staff knowledge also, and incorporating that into our project planning,” Case said. “If there’s a losing reach down below, we need to be thinking about how to compensate for that in our project planning.”

Hydraulic program manager Dean Uyeno said he recommends that water not be diverted at all during projects but instead bypassed with a cofferdam or sandbag setup.

“In stream channel alterations, we shouldn’t be turning the water off,” he said.

Kaleo Manuel, commission deputy director, said better oversight and management of projects are key.

“How we interact with our stream systems is not just going through a process and checking boxes, we need to work closely with the community,” he said.

Commission staff said they held meetings with area residents, diverters and community group Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha following the fish kill incident. The panel discussed followup measures to be taken, which included:

• Having U.S. Geological Survey monitoring stream flow weekly at a gauge installed on Wailuku River above the Wailuku Water Co. intake. Also, the state commission has discussed with USGS plans to education the community on how stream flow is measured and conditions required for stream gauge installation.

• Staff installing signage on the fish ladder.

• Staff meeting with Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha more frequently to provide communications on future actions and to share data.

• Staff working with stream diverters Mahi Pono and Wailuku Water Co. to make improvements to system monitoring.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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