The three-block-wide tourist district of Waikīkī is bounded by the Ala Wai Canal (shown here) on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Timothy A. Schuler

A flood could devastate the tourist zone of Waikīkī in Honolulu, but a federal plan to fortify the Ala Wai Canal has met with strong local resistance.

Of the nearly 5 million tourists who descend on Waikīkī and its beach in Honolulu every year, few are likely aware that the beachfront destination used to be a sprawling wetland. Here, on the island of Oahu, Hawaiians cultivated taro and built fishponds to raise ‘ama ‘ama (striped mullet). Later, farmers grew rice in wide, irrigated paddies. It was a fertile delta.

In the first part of the 20th century, Hawai‘i’s territorial governor and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers filled the fishponds and dredged the two-mile-long Ala Wai Canal, draining the wetlands and setting the stage for a century of hotel and condominium development.

This history has come to the fore in recent weeks as a battle over a proposed $345 million flood-control project for Waikīkī has played out in the community and in Hawai‘i’s courts.

The plan to harden the Ala Wai

Waikīkī is a three-block-wide stretch between the Ala Wai Canal and the ocean, located at the base of a steep, densely populated watershed. It’s a major economic engine, responsible for 7 percent of Hawaii’s GDP as well as 7 percent of all jobs in the state.

Waikīkī Beach. (Caleb Jones/AP)

There has been a growing awareness for years that a major flood event could bring the neighborhood to its knees. Already, king tides have overtopped Waikīkī’s seawalls and those along the Ala Wai, and forced water up through the neighborhood storm drains—not unlike what Miami Beach sees on a regular basis. Official estimates put the price tag of a 100-year storm in Waikīkī at $1.14 billion.

To protect against this threat—which is exacerbated by the fact that sea levels are expected to rise roughly three feet in coming decades—in 2001 the Army Corps and Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources initiated the Ala Wai Canal Flood Risk Management Project, which calls for flood walls along the length of the historic canal, six debris and detention basins in the upper reaches of tributary streams (which would feature earthen dams up to 24 feet tall and nearly as wide as a football field), a series of pump stations, and further dredging.

The plan has met fierce opposition, however, both from homeowners whose properties would be affected by the detention basins and from Hawaiian activists and environmental groups.

Earlier this year, the boards of six Honolulu neighborhoods affected by the plan passed resolutions requesting a temporary halt to the project. In September, the grassroots organization Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed sued the state, city, and county and requested a temporary injunction. A judge granted the injunction the following month, prohibiting the state from funding the project until the delivery of an environmental impact statement in compliance with state law. (Of the total project cost, about $125 million would come from the State of Hawaii and the other $220 million from the federal government.)

Opponents’ concerns include the ecological impact of the proposed detention basins and the visual impact of flood walls along the canal, which currently is lined with running and biking paths and used daily by canoe clubs. They say that the Army Corps’ plan is outdated, based on 20th-century ideas about flood protection and lacking the type of adaptive capacity that more natural solutions offer.

“This is a failure of leadership from the highest levels,” said Simon Bussiere, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Although the proposed measures might work for a time, he said, such monumental flood-control infrastructure is “plagued with inherent instability and failure.”

Bussiere said the project’s $345 million budget would be better spent on a more systematic and ecologically informed watershed-restoration effort that could protect Waikīkī and the surrounding communities from future floods but that also would provide other benefits, ranging from increased open space to enhanced water quality (a major issue in the Ala Wai, due to the amount of runoff it receives).

Early plans by the Army Corps included ecosystem restoration and water quality as stated goals of the project, but these aspects were later removed.

“That’s what got us concerned,” said Kenneth Kaneshiro, the director of the Center for Conservation Research & Training at UH-Mānoa and a cofounder of the Hawaiʻi Exemplary State Foundation, whose mission is to combine traditional Hawaiian knowledge with modern technology to help make communities more resilient. “A watershed is a living organism. If you’re putting six detention dams throughout the watershed, you’re disrupting the natural ecosystem.”

If the Army Corps proceeds as planned, there is likely to be a showdown. Protests against the scheduled construction of a $1.4 billion observatory known as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Maunakea, Hawai‘i’s tallest—and most sacred—peak, grew into a movement earlier this year. Given the cultural importance of water in Hawaiʻi, it is likely that any attempt to build massive, concrete-lined structures in the upper reaches of one of Oahu’s most vital watersheds will be met with resistance.

“If they start, it’s going to be another TMT,” Kaneshiro said.

Stewardship vs. walls

Imai Winchester is a teacher at Halau Ku Mana, a Native Hawaiian charter school located along one of the Ala Wai’s tributaries, and is among those who oppose the Army Corps plan. “What scares me is the blind faith that the Army Corps has the best proposal for us, and that the potential of choking out our remaining streams in Honolulu is worth $350 million. To me, it’s very short-sighted,” he said.

One of the issues is that the project will impede ongoing, community-driven stewardship efforts. “You need hands in the stream to keep it clean,” he said. “A wall is not going to do it. A wall is disconnecting. If you reflect back on what happened to Hawai‘i over the last century, it’s been [characterized by] the severance of relationship.”

Halau Ku Mana helps organize an annual stream cleanup near its campus, an area targeted for a detention basin. The canal project would destroy at least 1,000 feet of natural stream channel and permanently alter the character of the entire valley. And yet Halau Ku Mana was not consulted during the development of the Army Corps’ plans, Winchester said. He recalled discovering a surveyor in the stream in the middle of a school day.

“Just to see people taking measurements on our site, without any consultation with us, without the courtesy of saying hello, really sparked our [indignation],” he said.

Jeff Herzog, the Army Corps’ project manager, said that consultation aside from soliciting comments on the draft environmental impact statement and notifying affected property owners is not required by federal law. But he admitted that communication to the public has been poorly handled: “It’s unfortunate that in 2015 the rendering that we put out for a flood wall along the Ala Wai Canal was a blank concrete wall.”

Bringing back the ahupuaʻa system

Several of those opposed to the Army Corps plan have offered alternative visions. Perhaps the most compelling is the Ala Wai Centennial, an ambitious 100-year plan for the Ala Wai watershed that is part memorial, part exhibition, and part environmental-justice initiative. It was created by Sean Connelly, a Pacific Islander American artist and designer who serves on the board of Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed.

Before the canal was built, the Waikiki area was a sprawling wetland. Hawaiians cultivated taro and built fishponds, and later, farmers grew rice in irrigated paddies. (Sean Connelly)
The building of the canal in the 1920s disrupted the natural hydrology and the traditional ahupuaʻa land system, which designer Sean Connelly hopes to recover through his Ala Wai Centennial project. (Sean Connelly)

Connelly’s vision includes physical interventions, such as a lock system for the canal and commercial-scale lo’i (taro patches) that support agritourism. But more broadly, he sees the Ala Wai Centennial as a coordinated framework for the recovery of Hawaiʻi’s ahupuaʻa system.

Historically, land in Hawai‘i was divided into districts that extended from the top of the mountains to the shore, known as ahupuaʻa. Roughly following the natural contours of Hawai‘i’s watersheds, the ahupuaʻa system acknowledged the importance—and resilience—of Hawaii’s streams and wetlands. Ahupua’a recovery, in Connelly’s words, is “a spatial, intellectual, and responsive approach to community organizing, design, and engineering.”

Aligning with the 100-year anniversary of the Ala Wai (which was begun in 1921), the centennial would begin in 2021 and include public events, exhibitions, design projects, community organizing, and more. It would serve as both a commemoration of the Ala Wai’s historical and cultural significance and an opportunity to articulate a more equitable, ecologically informed future for the communities within the Ala Wai watershed, to be implemented over the next 100 years.

Connelly has presented his Centennial vision to nearly 1,200 students in Honolulu as well as to city, state, and federal officials. He currently is planning and fund-raising for an initial set of projects. Kaneshiro’s foundation, meanwhile, is close to securing a sum similar to that of the Army Corps appropriation to pursue related efforts, Kaneshiro said. Among the ideas floated by several entities are a series of linear parks along tributary streams to serve as natural flood-control measures—something Connelly has been advocating for since at least 2014.

“Every major city has had its civic triumph,” Connelly said. “Honolulu’s is going to be the Ala Wai Canal. It’s going to be the recovery of our ahupuaʻa system.”

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