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Fresh Water: From the Mountains To Your Drinking Glass

(page 4 of 8)


Protecting Our Forests

Here’s why healthy watersheds are the top priority for Forestry, one of the state’s oldest services, established in 1903.

(L-R): Galen Kawakami (Kauai), John Cumming (Maui), Roger Imoto (Big Isle),Paul Conry (state forester) and David Smith (Oahu).
Photo: Rae Huo

The lush greenery of  Oahu’s Makiki Watershed surrounds Paul Conry, state forester and head of the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and four county branch managers. The native and non-native trees behind them, part of the 1.5 million acres of state-owned forest reserve – the 11th largest in the nation – that they manage, help make possible the fresh water we expect when we turn on the tap.

“Without vegetation and forest cover in our watersheds, most of our rainfall would just run off into the ocean. Watershed protection is our No. 1 priority and requires active management,” says Conry, a biologist and 22-year Forestry and Wildlife veteran who heads a staff of 185 that includes biologists, foresters, invasive species experts, and educators to assess, protect and restore the watersheds.

The Division of Forestry and Wildlife also works in partnership with private landowners to eliminate destructive invasive species and plant trees that can effectively collect rain and fog water to replenish our water supply in a total of 2 million acres of public/private lands.

A key Forestry and Wildlife initiative in recent years has been identifying and acquiring new lands to grow the watersheds under public ownership through the state-run Legacy Land Conservation Program established in 2003. In 2010, 65,000 acres in Puna on the Big Island were acquired, the largest addition to the state’s watersheds since Forestry was founded in 1903.

Photo: Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

“While we’re in the midst of a 10-year cycle of wetter weather, we’re still seeing drier areas expanding statewide and anticipate bigger episodes of droughts increasing in the future,” explains Conry of the need to expand watershed protection. The state must maintain the current level of water production to serve the diverse needs of Hawaii’s population, and must increase efficiency in the long term by protecting forests to capture, retain, and recharge our groundwater supply as a buffer for hotter, drier periods in decades to come.

“We’re proud to say that the mountain tops of every mountain range statewide are now associated with an active watershed partnership,” Conry says. “We have in place the data, technologies, expertise, experience, infrastructure and dedicated people. With expanded funding, our team can conduct their operations at a landscape scale.”


Hawaii Priority Watershed Areas

Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife

County of Hawaii

We have about 600,000 acres in watershed, the largest in the state. Our focus is on the drier areas in West Hawaii – South Kau, South Kona and Puuwaawaa in North Kona – where watershed protection also provides habitat protection for native birds and native plants. Invasive species and fires are big concerns. Fountain grass, particularly, which flourishes along the highways near Keahole Airport, creates a dry, dead underbrush that’s a fire hazard. The eucalyptus plantations planted in the mid-1990s in former sugar acreage to help stop erosion is close to harvesting to create a new lumber industry.

Roger Imoto
Hawaii Branch Manager
and 22-year veteran forester

County of Maui ►

Invasives are a problem in our county’s 110,000 watershed acres, particularly miconia, which was introduced as an ornamental plant and just spreads like wildfire. It’s taken over former agriculture lands in East Maui, home of the state’s last sugar plantation, and invaded Hana, which attracts tourists for its native rainforests and abundant waterfalls. The West Maui Mountains watersheds are a protection priority because it serves the water needs of our drier south shore Gold Coast communities, such as Kihei, Wailea.

John Cumming
Maui Branch Manager since 1990
and third-generation Maui native

City and County of Oahu

Oahu as our urban center is compact in terms of watershed areas, which includes the Koolau Mountains, one of 12 major watershed areas in the state. Our focus is a modern take on the ahupuaa of the ancient Hawaiians. We integrate watershed protection in the mauka forest mountains with the lower wetlands and on to the near shore. In the northern Koolaus, fencing is a priority to keep goats out of the watersheds, which helps protect the Kailua ahupuaa, including 3,000 acres of Kawainui Marsh, and out to the ocean to protect seabird habitats.

David Smith
Oahu Branch Manager
and 23-year veteran biologist

County of Kauai ►

We have 86,000 acres in watershed and opportunities to acquire former cane lands on my native island. A big priority is protecting Waialeale, the wettest spot in the world, and Kawaikini, the highest peak in that same mountain range, all of which is now 100 percent native trees and ground cover. Keeping out wild pigs and invasive plants, particularly the Australian tree fern that has invaded 20 to 30 percent of Kauai, from spreading into the nearby Alakai Wilderness Preserve area is a major emphasis. Watershed protection on the populated east side is to ensure uninterrupted water for agriculture and residential use.

Galen Kawakami
Kauai Branch Manager
and 35-year veteran forester


Hawaii’s Waters: Past & Future

Ancient Times / First Polynesians believed to arrive in Hawaiian Islands by 600 A.D. Water conservation through kapu (laws) and kanawai (laws of water) become major laws of the land. 

1700s / First westerners arrive, following Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778.  In the 1790s, large hoofed animals, including goats, sheep and cattle brought to Hawaii, roam freely, destroying forests.

1800s / Sandalwood trade, ranching and early plantations accelerate loss of native forests and raise industry demand for water. Discovery of artesian wells sets off a water boom on all islands that goes bust in 20 years, wasting millions of gallons of water.

1876 / King David Kalakaua signed an act for the protection and preservation of woods and forests. The act included the construction of fences and barriers to prevent hoofed animal trespass into forests important for water resources.

1900 / Residents of all islands suffer a water panic. Centuries-old springs and rivers had been drying up, wells salting up and fresh water levels becoming muddied and undrinkable from denuded upland forest slopes. Territorial Forest Reserve System established in 1903; builds fences, removes hoofed animals and plants 1.5 million trees on nearly 1 million acres by 1930.

1920s / Honolulu faces water shortages caused by rapid industry and urban growth, and unrestricted use. Board of Water Supply established in 1929 to manage water use.

Present Day / State Natural Area Reserve System established in 1971 to preserve native ecosystems and cultural resources. First Watershed Partnership, a voluntary alliance, established on Maui in 1991. In 2011, state announces a 10-year plan to strengthen link between protecting native forest watersheds and sustaining water.

Sources: Board of Water Supply, City & County of Honolulu; and State Department of Land and Natural Resources Statewide Assessment and Resource Strategy: Hawaii Assessment Historical Context 2010.

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